Auckland mayor asked to intervene to prevent the loss of public access for concerts, expos and the Royal Easter Show.
A film studio is understood to be the preferred bidder for the lease to the 8ha Auckland Showgrounds, to the dismay of major show and events promoters reliant on the big public venue.
X3 Studios’ Stephen Pryor and Peter “Harry” Harrison are fronting investors who have gazumped events company Coast Group in a secretive tender process. Insiders believe they were able to offer more than the $1.5m a year rent that land-owner Cornwall Park Trust Board had sought from the previous Showgrounds operators.
The events industry’s failure to retain the 18,000sq m of exhibition space is not for lack of demand. Just this weekend outside the big stone gateway on Greenlane West, there were queues of cars backed up to Manukau Rd and Great South Rd waiting to see one of the first big shows in months, the Tiny House Expo.
The Covid pandemic drove the former leaseholder into liquidation, and has forced the cancellation of next month’s Royal Easter Show for the third year running. But in coming months, promoters hoped to finally hold the long-delayed EMEX engineering show, Armageddon, the Food Show, the Baby Show and the Home Show.
Now a major question mark hangs over the Food Show in July, the Baby Show in August, and everything thereafter. Twenty-six- year-old mum Kendal Fasher (who as a teenager worked part-time on shows at the Showgrounds) said she had hoped to attend the Baby Show when she was pregnant. “That’s part of the disappointment,” she said. “When you don’t have any other friends who have had young kids, you’re kind of in the dark over everything.”
Since then it’s been repeatedly postponed. Now her daughter Poppy is 14 months old, and the show looks likely to be cancelled entirely. “It would be quite disappointing to lose it because there’s not really anywhere these events can be held. So the next generations are going to miss out.”
BDO and Bayleys closed the tenders on March 18. Pryor, the chief executive of X3 Studios and Xytech Properties, confirmed they hoped to finalise an agreement and he would like to say more about the studio plan. “Yes, there is a process going on,” he said. “But I’m not able to say much more than that.”
Xytech’s existing X3 Studios in Wiri, south Auckland, are one of three large studio complexes already in Auckland. Auckland Film Studios in Henderson, and Kumeu Film Studios further north, are the other big ones. With last year’s sudden, unexpected departure of Amazon Prime’s Lord of the Rings TV production (as first reported by Newsroom), the country’s studios have had spare capacity – prompting questions about whether Auckland needs a fourth big studio complex.
But John Barnett, the longtime boss of South Pacific Pictures who now runs his own production company Endeavour Ventures, said there was renewed demand for studio space this year. There was a Taika Waititi production coming, he said, that would take a lot of studio space – it’s not yet known whether it’s his adaptation of Moebius’ The Incal, Flash Gordon, or his mysterious Dawn of the Jedi Star Wars film.
“A couple of projects, which apparently have Taika Waititi involved, have pencil-booked Auckland, Kumeu and Stone Street in Wellington. So potentially, all of those places are full.”
– John Barnett, Endeavour Ventures
Either way, after the departure of the Rings series, it’s providing some much-needed buzz in New Zealand’s depressed film industry – alongside the 12 nominations for Dame Jane Campion’s New Zealand-made The Power of the Dog at today’s Academy Awards.
Barnett had been talking with Harry Harrison about the Showgrounds plan, and said he might invest if the lease were inked soon. “It’s a great location, because it’s the confluence of motorway access.
“And what has happened over the last month or so is that a couple of projects, which apparently have Taika Waititi involved, have pencil-booked Auckland, Kumeu and Stone Street in Wellington. So, potentially, all of those places are full. The truth is that if somebody else builds something, it’s going to be competitive.”
He thought the trade shows, meanwhile, were struggling. “And from the events point of view, the impact of Covid most probably puts them in a weak position. The events industry might be upset, but I don’t think their future is anything like it was pre-Covid.”
“Time is of the essence given that the Trustees and successful bidder are in the process of finalising the lease. It’s fair to assume the parties will be motivated to expedite before any media is alerted.”
– Brent Spillane, letter to the mayor
Brent Spillane, the managing director of XPO Exhibitions Ltd, has written to Auckland Mayor Phil Goff pleading for him to intervene.
The Cornwall Park Trustees had decided to proceed with the film industry private organisation bid, he wrote, with Bayleys advising the unsuccessful bidder Coast Group that they were now working to finalise the lease arrangement.
Coast Group is the country’s biggest supplier of exhibitions equipment, including marquees, stands, sound and lighting equipment – and was backed by others in the events and exhibitions industry, as well as promotion agency Auckland Unlimited.
Cornwall Park Trust Board chair Adrienne Young-Cooper issued a statement last night to Newsroom, saying the existing arrangement with exhibitions operator Mark Frankham and his NZEEC team would continue until the end of June.
“We need the wind behind us, we need to be unapologetic about rebuilding our business community, about supporting our agricultural products, and about provide social venues for Aucklanders. If we’re not doing that, I think we’re failing in our duties and certainly, failing the vision that Logan Campbell had for the space.”
– Christine Fletcher, Auckland Councillor
“We are working towards a solution for the longer term, but no final decision has yet been made and several options remain under consideration,” she said.
“Every decision we make regarding the management of the Showgrounds and the other revenue-generating assets administered by the Trust Board is guided by what is in the best interests of Cornwall Park. Our obligation as trustees is to preserve Sir John Logan Campbell’s gift to the country, our focus as governors is to manage our assets in such a way that we can continue to provide all New Zealanders the opportunity to enjoy and experience nature in the heart of our country’s biggest city, for free.”
The moot point is whether the terms of Logan Campbell’s endowment protect the Showgrounds for the public and businesses of Auckland, or only protect Cornwall Park. Young-Cooper argued the Showgrounds were merely a revenue-generating asset, like the Trust’s residential property portfolio around Greenlane and One Tree Hill – but the Showgrounds’ champions argue they too are protected by the terms of the trust deed and the Auckland Unitary Plan.
The highs and lows
Former mayor Christine Fletcher remembers, as a girl in the late 1950s and early 60s, riding the Ferris Wheel at the Easter Show.
“I suppose things always seem larger, in your memory, and I just saw the Easter Show opening up this huge land of possibilities,” she said. “To be on top of the Ferris wheel and look down upon Auckland in the evening with all the lights, it just made everything seem possible.
“Long before Rainbow’s End, long before the possibility of travel to theme parks in Queensland and California, the Easter Show was the high point of Auckland. There are lots of memories for so many Aucklanders. And all the exhibitions make it an integral part of the Auckland economy. I think it would be short sighted to see it being closed and tied up with just film studios.
“I’ve always felt that being in Auckland was really important and didn’t experience the cringe factor – but we need the wind behind us, we need to be unapologetic about rebuilding our business community, about supporting our agricultural products, and about provide social venues for Aucklanders. If we’re not doing that, I think we’re failing in our duties and certainly, failing the vision that Logan Campbell had for the space.”
Act leader and Epsom MP David Seymour, by contrast, sees the trustees’ obligation as first and foremost to maximise the revenue from assets like the Showgrounds, in order to deliver on Logan Campbell’s vision of Cornwall Park for the people of the city.
“The Trust Board is primarily responsible for honouring the trust deed, and providing one of the greatest urban parks in the world entirely free to the public,” he said. “And they do have the right to use their property to lease it out.”
He has been lobbying the Government to support the exhibitors, but he doesn’t blame the trust board for the collapse of their businesses. “It’s tragic for the events industry. But the real tragedy is not this lease. It’s the fact that it’s so hard to develop property in this country that our largest city has only one potential events centre. That’s the real issue.”
Spillane points out in his letter to Goff that the Auckland Unitary Plan designates the Showgrounds as a precinct set aside for the primary activities of exhibitions, trade fairs, conferences and events.
“No doubt such protections are in place to acknowledge the thousands of businesses, hundreds of thousands of tourists and vast industry trade that Showgrounds’ exhibitions and events provide to Auckland – as well as helping protect millions invested by Auckland Council and the NZ Government on the building upgrades to enable growth of Exhibitions back in the early 2000s.”
He had legal advice that activities such as filming could not be permitted to displace the use and development of the Showgrounds as an events and exhibition venue – and editing and production had no place at all. “I point this out as the successful bidder has made their intentions clear to the current venue manager to repurpose parts of the site’s Exhibition Halls and other infrastructure to undertake such activities.”
Spillane said Harrison had been out at the Showgrounds in the past week, checking out the buildings for the installation of sound insulation to convert them into studios, and hosting overseas film industry representatives who arrived in limos. “Bayleys confirmed to Coast that the film industry bid for the lease failed to provision in any way for exhibitions and events. Having today reached out by phone to the successful bidder, they were unwilling to meet.
“We now seek your urgent action to remind both the Trustees and any incumbent leaseholder of the Auckland Showgrounds, that Auckland Council … does not consent to any part or wholesale conversion of the building or facilities for film usage without Resource Consent – especially when such conversion has potential to negatively impact on Primary Activities.”
The letter concluded: “Time is of the essence given that the Trustees and successful bidder are in the process of finalising the lease. It’s fair to assume the parties will be motivated to expedite before any media is alerted.”
“To lose the Showgrounds and the many business and consumer events that it serves would result in a mass net outflow of knowledge, ideas, productivity, investment, talent and jobs for the people of Tāmaki Makaurau.”Preview
A spokesperson for Phil Goff said: “The mayor received correspondence this week and is seeking advice. He will respond once he has received that advice.”