Saturday, 14 November 2009

Reflections on the Town Hall

Reading in Ken Bye's book "Trial By Fire...", which was written in the 1980s, he states that the future of the Town Hall was uncertain due to lack of use and increased maintenance costs. Twenty-five years later, in the November issue of the News & Views, the Wallace Community Board notes that since a trust has not formed to save the Town Hall, the hall's future is in doubt.

I'm one of those people who would hate to see a heritage building destroyed for lack of funds. Otautau, as small as it is, has had its share of 'Main Street Blues'. We've lost the post office, the Wallace County Council office, the railway station, the flour mill (which was used as a community hall for many years), the Otautau Standard (newspaper) building, the Dairy Factory, and the Anglican Church.

But Otautau's problem is one shared by many small towns around the world - the effect of losing one's young people to larger cities due to under-employment in the town. If there are no opportunities for young people to continue to get skills, further their education, afford property and live their lives here, then of course they will leave. And if there are no facilities or businesses that draw new people from outside in, then of course they will not come.

So we are left with a larger ageing population (Baby Boomers and up) who are beset with doing a lot of the volunteer work, running the trusts that keep the cultural side of the town going. These hearty souls are spread thinly; the failure to be able to form a new trust to save a building is a testament to that. How many trusts can one town have and be sustainable without burning itself out? If the young people who grew up in this town don't stay to take on the work, it's a problem. This is why it's so critical that when new people move into town, that they get involved with local groups. If they don't or are 'here today, gone tomorrow,' then the whole town suffers.

A hundred years ago, the Otautau Town Board was tossing around the pros and cons of adding on to the existing town hall or building a completely new one. Funding was a problem. In a small way, the death of King Edward VII in 1910, and the subsequent coronation of King George V in 1911, helped push the Board toward building a new town hall. The NZ government was offering subsidies to local bodies to do something big to commemorate the coronation. And even though it was only a grant of L250, it encouraged the Board to go ahead with its plans. The foundation stone was laid on Coronation Day, 22 June 1911, and the new Town Hall and Coronation Library was opened 23 August 1912.

A part of me wishes it was that simple now. That maybe the long-awaited coronation of a new monarch in England and a big subsidy from the government would help save the Town Hall. But we live in much more complex times and history doesn't always repeat itself. It would take a lot more ingenuity to save not only this building but also any others in Otautau which may be deemed unsustainable into the future.

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