There’s been much discussion and many proposals regarding a new Concert Hall for Townsville in the last 12-or-so months. Most people with an interest in live music or theatre would agree that current facilities are insufficient – due to acoustics, capacity, technical facilities or any number of other issues – but the debate still exists over exactly what we need and where we should put it.
Currently, a 1,000-seat Concert Hall with adjoining 250 person black-box space, large foyer, bar/café and gallery space positioned at Central Park in the CBD is the front-runner, with Townsville City Council due to deliver a Concept Plan as part of the Townsville 2020 masterplan this July. However, a second proposal independently commissioned by the Townsville Community Music Centre, Townsville Eisteddfod, Barrier Reef Orchestra and the Australian Vocal and Concerto Competition; suggests a larger Townsville Performing Arts Centre (TPAC) be developed at the existing Civic Theatre site.
We caught up with Justin Ankus from the Australian Festival of Chamber Music (AFCM) – which has thrown its support behind the CBD Concert Hall – and Simon McConnell of the Townsville Community Music Centre to better understand the perspective from each camp.
What do they want?
Justin wants a 1000-seat Concert Hall, on the Strand or in the CBD.
Simon wants a Performing Arts Centre built as an extension to the existing Civic Theatre.
Both Justin and Simon primarily cite the community’s need and current demand on the Civic Theatre as the main reason behind their respective proposed venue.
“Townsville has Arts,” said Justin. “We have the Barrier Reef Orchestra, we have the Townsville Big Band, we have the Townsville Concert Band, we have all the schools and their wonderful programs, so there’s no shortage of music happening, which would be better suited to a Concert Hall as opposed to a theatre.
“Concert Halls can double – just like theatres – as conference venues, spaces for corporate seminars, graduation ceremonies, speech nights… so having such a facility would help alleviate some of the pressure on the Civic Theatre.”
While a Concert Hall – which differs from a theatre in the pitching of the roof that ultimately effects the acoustics of the room – would certainly help to free up space at the Civic Theatre for shows currently by-passing Townsville due to lack of available and/or suitable performance venues, Simon sees an even bigger scope for making space.
“The Civic Theatre was built as Stage 1 of a Performing Arts Centre in 1978,” Simon said. “Stage 2 was meant to commence in 1983; and we’re still waiting for that … The second stage was basically another venue, a rehearsal space, a bar/café/restaurant and I presume more administration. That didn’t happen and it’s one of the reasons why the Civic has always had such an inadequate front of house.”
The TPAC proposal revisits this idea, with hopes to build a small theatre stage, a Concert Hall, an Amphitheatre and a presentation stage around the existing theatre.
“What we’re proposing is a much-extended car park but with an area of green space carpark as opposed to bitumen – we’d have 950 car parks, another two entries, a drop-off lane, a designated bus and taxi zone, and space for coaches to park.”
Where do they want it?
Justin values proximity to hotels and other cultural destinations.
Simon favours plenty of room to accommodate everything in one place.
Justin posits that a Concert Hall located in the CBD will help improve access to and participation in live music events, particularly among visitors to Townsville.
“Certainly, from the AFCM’s point of view, of the 16,000 attendees we get every year and their 34,000 room nights, most of them stay in the city,” Justin said. “Unfortunately, Townsville’s public transport is lacking so, for visitors to Townsville, there is no public bus service that runs past the Civic Theatre and no way of getting to the Civic Theatre other than by car.”
AFCM’s ideal site for a Concert Hall would have been the old Queens Hotel site, as part of the proposed development of The HIVE, though with Council preferring the Central Park site, Justin agrees the City is the next best option.
“Now people say ‘That’s very nice of the AFCM and very selfish of them’, and that’s certainly not our intention; we think that would be good for the city as well. To have that central gathering place by the water to really create that cultural precinct in the corner, with the museum and aquarium, we think would be great for the economy of Townsville and Townsville’s reputation,” Justin said.
“Yes, there are problems that need to be addressed such as road access, but those things can be solved if the area is activated properly, and that would be phenomenal.”
Simon believes one of the Civic Theatre’s greatest assets is its existing access, which he suggests promotes greater attendance over theatres in other regional cities simply thanks to the ease of parking available on such a large site.
“Townsville has probably the best arterial road system of any city in the state,” said Simon. “We’re a city of nearly 200,000 people and virtually any resident can leave their home and drive to the Civic Theatre in 20 minutes or less – you’re struggling to do that in Cairns!
“With all that car parking space, you know when you leave home, you’re going to get an off-street park – it’s there, it’s free – so while people in Townsville might not book tickets in advance, [the ease of access and parking] does mean that they come – and that’s crucial.”
What’s the price tag?
The Concert Hall has not yet been budgeted.
TPAC is expected to cost approximately $42 million.
While no costings have yet been addressed for Townsville’s proposed Concert Hall, the Cairns Post recently reported the cost of the as-yet unfinished Cairns Performing Arts Centre (CPAC) to be $68.9 million. CPAC is comparable in size to the Concert Hall in the following ways:
- CPAC has a 940-seat theatre (including flytowers, which the Concert Hall would not require)
- CPAC has a 400-seat black box space compared to Townsville’s proposed 250-seater
- CPAC will not have a gallery space or café/ restaurant
CPAC also has an adjoining parklands space and amphitheatre, which brings the combined costs of Cairns’ Arts Precinct to $78.9 million.
Simon said the proposal for TPAC was currently estimated at $42 million – with the $37 million difference due largely to expanding on the existing Civic Theatre.
“By comparison, the TPAC proposal would give us an 800-seat Concert Hall, a 200-seat theatre, a very large foyer space, a 2000-capacity amphitheatre, ample bar and catering space and a 950-capacity car park – as well as the existing 1000-seat theatre,” said Simon.
“And then the capital costs are only part of the picture. The TPAC model maximises economy of operation both in staffing equipment, maintenance and administration compared with operating yet another satellite venue.”
Why does it matter?
Justin says Townsville is missing out because of a lack of Arts facilities.
“Townsville is desperate for new arts facilities and that’s both performing and visual arts – music, theatre and gallery space,” Justin said.
“Most of [the artwork managed by] Perc Tucker Gallery sits in a container out in the suburbs worth $25 million and we don’t get to see very much of it very often. The theatre is constantly booked out, which in a way is fantastic, but I know there have been people say to me ‘Oh, we can’t get a booking in the theatre’, even though they want to bring their shows here.”
Those lost bookings are losing Townsville money – 110 potential bookings were reportedly knocked back in 2014 alone due to unavailable or unsuitable space.
“This is a double-edged sword,” said Simon.
“By accommodating for many smaller audience shows – 400 or 500 people who won’t fit in any other existing venue – the Civic Theatre is making less revenue than it could be. It costs the same amount to hire ushers and technicians and turn the lights on as it would for a full-house, so the yields become significantly reduced.”
Local groups also receive discounted venue hire fees and often charge lower admission prices than touring shows, inadvertently lowering the Theatre’s overall income even further.
It’s a complex issue and both ideas have merit, but for all their difference, one thing is abundantly clear: To continue growing Townsville’s artistic landscape and local skillset, more purpose-built Arts facilities are required.