When I moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, from Sydney in 2011 the first place I was taken to was Hamilton Gardens and as soon as I took one look I knew I never wanted to live anywhere else in the world again.
It was a crisp winter’s day, families were feeding ducks, and as I wandered from the Italian renaissance garden to the Japanese garden to the traditional Maori garden I fell deeper and deeper in love with the gardens and my new home city.
I remember thinking at the time how wonderful it was that there was no charge to enter the gardens, that it was available for all to visit – from an out-of-towner with two cents to her name like me to the mums I saw pushing prams around to the large family groups who had gathered for informal picnics or a game of cricket.
Over the years I’ve returned many times to Hamilton Gardens. When my now-husband moved all the way from London to Hamilton to be with me it was where I took him to introduce him to our new home and just I had he too fell in love with it immediately. Down the track he would plan to propose there on Valentine’s Day but a flat car battery stopped his romantic gesture.
When our first son Charlie was born I would spend hours walking through the gardens with him in a baby carrier because it was the only way he would sleep. For our first Mother’s Day as a family we went there – Charlie vomited on the steps by Turtle Lake if I remember correctly – and we shared the day with hundreds of other families.
When we left New Zealand to live in Northern Ireland for 18 longs months the gardens was the last place we visited before we headed for the airport and it was a teary farewell. And as the weeks and days counted down before we returned to our beloved Tron, now with identical twin baby boys in tow, we daydreamed about going back to the gardens and taking our three boys to see all the changes. It was a happy reunion.
My stories are no different to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have visited the gardens since they opened in 1960.
And, like me, they are most likely appalled at the idea sprung on us by newly elected mayor Andrew King to charge a NZ$25 entry fee for ‘non-residents’ to visit the gardens. (The exact wording is an entry fee for the “specialty gardens” but let’s ignore the PR spin and be clear here, it’s a general admission fee. Why go to the gardens if not to see the, well, gardens?).
How or what constitutes a ‘non-resident’ has not been made clear at the time of writing, nor has Mayor King explained why he kept his grand plan quiet during his recent election campaign. He won by only nine votes, so perhaps he deliberately kept this on the down low lest he ruin his chances to grab the top job.
But I digress.
Mayor King claims an entry fee is needed because the gardens have become ‘too popular’, whatever that means. I don’t know exactly what an entry fee will do other than penalise people who can’t afford the $25 a pop to visit. Does the Mayor only want the wealthy to visit? Busloads of cashed up tourists who hop on and hop off an hand over their credit card are okay but backpackers or families who have saved for a year to visit New Zealand aren’t good for business?
And it’s not just tourists who will be shut out of the gardens. It means all those Waikato folk who live outside ‘resident’ zone will be forced to pay. People who may have lived in Hamilton for years and years, their annual rates paying for the upkeep of the gardens, now charged for the privilege of setting foot inside a public space they helped build.
My husband and I rent a modest home while we scrimp and save enough money for a deposit for a family home. With three boys and Hamilton’s house prices being what they are it’s likely we will have to look further afield to a regional town like Te Awamutu for an affordable property.
When we move we would have to fork out at least $50 to visit the gardens we so love to spend time in as a family. Suffice to say that would be $50 we simply couldn’t afford.
Mayor King prides himself on being a successful businessman – he’s the boss man at King’s Finance – and he owns lots of commercial property in Hamilton. On his website he says he’s “learnt some hard lessons with my own money during my years in business”.
Perhaps the one lesson Mayor King failed to learn was the one thing that underpins any strong, vibrant, fair, and ultimately successful city: that there are some things you can’t put a price on.