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Hands off! Last-minute legal challenge could save Auckland Showgrounds

The possibility of losing the iconic Auckland Showgrounds as a venue for exhibitions and events may have been stalled at the 11th hour by a legal challenge which might mean part of the site is protected.Jane Phare reports.

Lawyers acting for a major Auckland events company have unearthed a 40-year-old statute that could stop the Cornwall Park Trust Board from leasing the Auckland Showgrounds to a film company. The fight to save the showgrounds as a venue has ratcheted up this month in the face of the legal challenge by Auckland event company XPO Exhibitions which claims two-thirds of the site is protected for the use of events and exhibitions.

Earlier this year the trust, which owns both Cornwall Park and the showgrounds site, considered two tenders for the lease – one from an entity connected to film company X3 Studios and the other from exhibition servicing company Coast Group which owns Carlton Party Hire, Exhibition Hire Services, and Showlight & Power.

Coast’s bid was backed by Auckland Unlimited, Live Nation and XPO Exhibitions but the company was told last month that it was unsuccessful, leaving X3 still in the play. The transfer of the site’s lease to Auckland company X3 Studios would effectively close a decades-old chapter for the showgrounds which has hosted thousands of events over the decades including the Royal Easter Show, The Food Show, the Auckland Home Show and Armageddon.

The trust board says it has made no decision about the lease but that it needs to act in the best interests of Cornwall Park. The trust relies on income from nearby leasehold homes and the showgrounds site to maintain the park.

But now law firm Hesketh Henry, engaged by XPO’s managing director Brent Spillane, has unearthed some long-forgotten legislation, dating back to 1982, that could force the trust board’s hand. The law firm has written to the trust to say that a lease (with X3) would breach a section of the Cornwall Park Endowment and Recreation Land Act 1982 which protects a sizeable chunk of the 8-hectare site for the use of exhibitions and events.

The area in question, known as Area B, includes the truck access and logistics ring road, all of numbers 1, 2 and 6 exhibition halls, and part of halls 3 and 4, part of the main concourse, the cafe and kitchen, the main entrance, the historic grandstand, part of the maintenance sheds and a large amount of carparking. Area B slices the showgrounds site diagonally in what Spillane describes as a “bizarre” division of the land.

The legislation says Area B is to be used in the same manner and for the same purpose as at January 1980. The law firm’s letter points out that in 1980, Area B was used as an exhibition and showgrounds venue for events including the Royal Easter Show, the New Zealand Boat Show, agricultural and pastoral shows, the trade show EMEX, and the Auckland Home Show. It was not used for filming.

Coast Group, XPO and others in the industry say that if the trust board does assign the lease to a film company, it will mean a multimillion-dollar loss to Auckland’s economy, and thousands of small businesses and exhibitors will have nowhere to go. Neither will the 1.2 million visitors who pass through the showgrounds’ gates each year.

Spillane told the Herald that the trust board now has no option but to consider options that include events and exhibitions but that it needed to make a decision soon. The current lease allowed exhibitions to be held up until June but after that events including the Auckland Food Show, the Spring Gift and Homewares Fair, The Baby Show, the Foodtech Packtech Trade Show, and Auckland Home Show were in danger of being cancelled due to lack of certainty.

Hesketh Henry’s letter says there is pressing urgency for the trust board to make a decision for the site “within the parameters of what the Act provides for” otherwise the trust will lose millions of dollars in venue rental from events, exhibitions and concerts beyond July that will be forced to postpone or cancel due to indecision.

The Government’s decision to change to the orange traffic light pandemic response setting from 11.59pm last night was a huge relief to the events industry. Spillane describes it as a “green for go” setting because capacity limits both indoors and outdoors are lifted.

But without a venue, the shows can’t go ahead. He acknowledged the trust board needed to make the best decision for the park, and that the showgrounds needed money spent on them to improve the standard. But he argues that money would come in from the industry if the trust board would consider working with events and exhibition organisers.

“I would owe them many hundreds of thousands (of dollars) as deposits on upcoming shows that could pay for that and more.”

The trust board’s chairwoman Adrienne Young-Cooper, responding to an approach from the Herald, dismissed the claims in Hesketh Henry’s letter, saying the board had been advised they were “without merit”.

She reiterated that no decision had been made about the showgrounds’ lease and that it was in everybody’s interests to resolve the matter quickly. It was important that future leasing arrangements of the showgrounds provided the trust with “a good income at an appropriate level of risk”, she said.

Spillane said the statute was very clear.

“What was happening in that area (in 1980) is to be preserved.”

XPO had received two independent legal opinions that upheld the view about the 1982 act. If the trust board were to finalise a lease with a private film entity, he said XPO would consider going to court to settle the matter.

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