‘White Elephant’ Projects

Many of these ‘big,’ ‘iconic’ projects too frequently degenerate into what has been described as ‘white elephant’ projects (Scott 1992). ‘White elephant’ projects are not only often large and expensive to build and take longer than originally estimated, but also form and ‘prestige’ so dominate over function that the project never performs satisfactorily either in terms of stated role, unclear as it is often is, or financially. Moreover, what really make these projects ‘white elephants’ is that they become expensive to maintain because of poor design, confused role and lack of what may be best described as a ‘business case’ for their very initiation. These problems are most explicitly seen in those projects in the arts such as art galleries and museums where even in the best of circumstances purpose is often ill-defined and clear criteria for success, difficult to articulate. Such buildings are characterised by a failure to meet anticipated attendance levels and frequently need repeated and expensive refurbishments that often cost more than their original construction. Scott (1992) reminds us of ‘white elephant’ projects covering many other areas ranging from technology parks, very fast train proposals, spaceports, to the famed multifunction polis.

Of course, ‘white elephant’ projects are not limited to the public sector. Examples in the tourism industry include the construction by various entrepreneurs during the late 1980s and early 1990s of numerous ‘prestige’ and ‘iconic’ resorts up and down the Queensland coast. Most ran at a huge losses and were usually on-sold several times at a fraction of their original development costs. Indeed, many of these resorts today, although apparently viable, are only profitable in terms of their operating, rather than full capital costs (Syvret and Syvret 1996) and have become viable by considerable changes in their scope and range of activities. Development of strata title units for on-selling has been one strategy used for these tourism developments. So numerous are ‘white elephant’ projects that one commentator suggested they were not limited to one off examples, but had become a ‘herd’ that pervaded the Australian landscape too frequently (Scott 1992).