Andrew King and Hamilton Gardens? I smell a rat.

When it comes to Hamilton Mayor Andrew King’s plan for Hamilton Gardens I smell a rat.

Late last week the newly-elected Mayor sprung on an unsuspecting public, not to mention fellow councillors, his plan to whack a $25 entry fee on the currently free Hamilton Gardens. The entry fee would be paid by all ‘non-residents’, he said, which means anyone not living within the comparatively small Hamilton City Council boundary.

Mayor King defended his plan – which he notably never mentioned once during his recent election campaign – by arguing the gardens were getting too popular for their own good, visitor numbers needed to be reduced, and that cash was needed to pay for the vague ‘stage two’ of the gardens’ redevelopment, of which no official plans, designs or approvals thus far exist (they are slated for completion in 2024).

Not surprisingly the Mayor’s plan was met with anger and condemnation across Hamilton and the greater Waikato. And across the country and overseas previous (and potential future) visitors said an entry fee would stop them from visiting the award-winning gardens.

Days after his shock announcement Mayor King had to face a council meeting and explain his $25 fee (“I compared it to what you would pay to get into London’s Kew Gardens”) and why it was, in his words, so desperately needed.

Mayor Andrew King, right, and local conservative politician Tim Macindoe.

The four new gardens planned to be finished by 2018 at a cost of a little of $7 million have already been paid for, the money coming from various sources including a lottery grant, donations, and a targeted rate of $10 per property a year for four years. Those gardens are known as stage one. International consultant Horwath HTL estimates the $7 million investment in the next stage of the Gardens will be returned in three years.

Mayor King says an entry fee is needed to complete stage two of the gardens, the designs of which the public has not seen, nor have been drawn up. If there are estimates of the total cost, they are not in the public realm.

But back to the rat.

When asked this week if the entry fee would be listed once, hypothetically speaking, the stage two gardens had been built, Mayor King told his councillors: “Well, that would be for the council of the day to decide and I won’t be here then”.

Sot is it really Mayor King’s intention to gouge visitors with a $25 entry fee? Perhaps it is. He’s certainly not on the lower end of the socio-economic scale of things. To him $25 is money that wouldn’t be missed from his wallet, unlike the tens of thousands of Waikato families who would be forced to pay such a whopping amount for the simple act of taking their children to see gardens.

But perhaps Mayor King had already considered the outcome of $25 being shouted down when he raised the idea, and had it in his mind to lower his proposed fee, say to $5 or $10, and appear to be a man of the people, a man who listens to the public’s concerns but still gets things done.

Don’t be surprised if the report that has now been ordered by Hamilton Council on the viability of the gardens and the logistics of an entry fee comes back with either a recommendation for an entry fee or the idea to charge for car parking at the gardens.

So we know the cost of the next stage of development of Hamilton Gardens has already been covered. So why does Mayor King – head of the NZ Property Investors Federation – insist we need the entry fee? It is because he wants to shift the day-to-day running cost away from Hamilton Council? An entry fee certainly would do that, freeing up money for Mayor King’s real passion of “churning out sections” (his words, not mine).

And what is the bet that, if introduced, the entry fee would increase over the years. We must all fight as best we can to keep the wolf from the door and say so to an entry fee, no matter how big or small. It’s a slippery slope and once a fee is introduced it will only become more and more expensive as time goes on.

The cruel irony is Hamilton Gardens already pay for themselves via economic return to Hamilton. They have been built and paid for through donations and rates and sheer grit and determination by generations of Hamiltonians.

To us, it is impossible to stomach Mayor King’s plan to put a price on them because we know the one thing he appears to fail to realise: that the Hamilton Gardens are priceless. And they are ours.


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