7 JANUARY 2018

By Tristan Hooker/MediaPA

Hamilton businessman and East Ward Council candidate Chris Rollitt, pictured, says confusion about the proposed fees at Hamilton Gardens is causing anguish amongst ratepayers, residents and fans of the gardens.

One of the most controversial parts of Mayor Andrew King's proposed 10-Year Plan for Hamilton was a $25 entrance fee for out-of-town visitors to the themed Gardens, which he proposed during a council meeting in March.  At a second discussion of the matter in December, councillors suggested reducing the fee to $10.

Chris Rollitt, who has been running businesses in Hamilton since the 1990s, says the initial $25 proposal was simply a negotiation ploy by the mayor.

“What the mayor has done is suggested an outrageous figure and then let it be moderated down,” says Mr Rollitt, who believes the new figure of $10 is still too high.

“Even at 10 dollars, entry visitor numbers will substantially reduce.  If you’ve got a bus load of 40 people, that’s 400 dollars, which is a huge amount of money to pay.  If you cut the amount of buses down by 25 percent, which is what research suggests is likely to happen, that’s going to dramatically affect visitor numbers.

“I think we do need to monetise it but charging 10 dollars will be too much of a barrier for people.  If we charge a five dollar fee, even if numbers reduce by 25 percent there will still be a revenue of one million dollars per year.”

The 54-hectare Hamilton Gardens has been free to visit since it opened in 1960.  It is now the Waikato Region’s most popular tourist attraction, with more than a million people visiting annually.  The gardens are maintained by private donations and volunteers, including Friends of Hamilton Gardens, a group started in 1989 to provide volunteer hours and promote the gardens, including staffing the onsite information centre each day.

“We need to have a small fee, to cover the gardens, to get a return for our investment,” says Mr Rollitt.  “Obviously the Friends of the Gardens, the people who have contributed to it, supported it and made it the fantastic thing that it has become over the years, should never pay a cent to go in there.  Residents of Hamilton – and that doesn’t just mean the ratepayers - shouldn’t have to pay either.”

Mr Rollitt, known for his policies of building strong communities, controlling rates and working with the people of Hamilton, believes once a fee is established, gatekeepers needn’t be too heavy handed in identifying locals who can get in for free.

“We don’t need to be too aggressive about it.  That’s the worrying thing for me. If someone says, hey look, I live at Chartwell and we just want to take Nana through the gardens, I really think it should be encouraged, rather than penalised.  It’s more the tourist dollar we need to get a return for.  When the people of Hamilton are enjoying it with their families, let’s not be mean spirited about it.

“The Hamilton Gardens are a fantastic asset - but they don’t come cheap.”