It’s hard to think of anyone who’s played a greater role in shaping Queenstown’s CBD than John Martin. Aged just 69, he died of a heart attack after kitesurfing on the Kapiti Coast on December 23. Philip Chandler pays tribute to someone whose like we’ll probably never see again.
Developers don’t always get a good rap, but John Martin defied that reputation with his contributions to the Queenstown CBD’s built environment and the wider community.
Since his passing, he’s also been hailed for his generosity, intelligence, passion for skiing and latterly kitesurfing and foiling, and huge devotion to his wife Suzanna and their teenage twins Zara and Tom.
Though brought up in Auckland, Martin first made his mark in Dunedin where, between gaining degrees in law and commerce, he bought and restored the famous Stuart Street terrace houses.
He also did dozens of deals with business partner Howard Paterson.
He shifted to Queenstown around 1990, first developing Ansett House, on a former motel site, with John Guthrie — the pair had initially teamed up to run a fruit barrow in The Mall in 1974.
Martin then bought and meticulously restored three neighbouring buildings in The Mall — those now housing Winnie’s/The Ballarat Trading Co, Reading Cinemas and Captains Restaurant/Crew Room.
He told Mountain Scene in ‘93: ‘‘To get quality into projects costs a hell of a lot of extra money.
‘‘But the only way we can develop Queenstown successfully is with absolutely top-quality buildings that are going to last.’’
Martin partnered John Darby, Paterson and Peter Hanson in developing the Steamer Wharf complex — a controversial project as it used ‘marginal strip’ lakefront as a development trade-off.
He, Guthrie and Paterson even owned the historic Williams Cottage property for a period, though a trust later restored it.
Martin drove the building of two CBD carpark buildings — an underground one off Church Street, in a deal with council, and one off Man St, in concert with Darby and Sir John Davies’ family.
With Andy Brinsley, he was a minority Kawarau Jet shareholder and co-owner of The Dairy Guesthouse, which they sold just two days before his death.
He also co-developed two buildings above Church St, and The Spire hotel opposite.
Away from the commercial world, Martin helped kick off Queenstown’s sister city relationship with exclusive United States resort, Aspen, in ’92.
In 2007, amidst fury over the run-down state of three historic miners’ cottages in Arrowtown, he stepped in to buy them off Irish developer Eamon Cleary for $1.9 million, then flicked them off to Queenstown’s council for the same price.
‘‘There was an element of risk I could have ended up with them, but I would have been more than happy to restore them,’’ he told Scene, which made him that year’s ‘person of the year’.
In 2010, Martin led the charge against Auckland International Airport buying 24.99% of Queenstown Airport with an option to take its stake to 50%.
‘‘He prevented them having an easy ride to get control effectively of our airport,’’ Darby says.
‘‘His motivation for that was purely for the community.’’
Brinsley says buildings like Steamer Wharf and the Church St ones will be Martin’s legacy ‘‘because they’ll stand the test of time through that focus on design and quality’’.
‘‘Queenstown could have been quite a different place if it had fallen into the mercy of fast-buck developers.
‘‘But he was a real part of setting the bar as far as standards go, and should be hugely acknowledged and respected for that.’’
Brinsley says his friend would be ‘‘infuriated’’ if he found the CBD was dirty.
He adds: ‘‘You would not find a tenant who had a bad word to say about Johnny and his support for their businesses.’’
As Darby puts it: ‘‘He was a champion for the CBD being the heart of the greater Queenstown area.’’
Martin later also developed commercial property in Noosa, in Australia, and owned buildings in Aspen.
Hospo entrepreneur Al Spary credits him as an amazing business mentor.
‘‘I had extraordinary respect for his depth and breadth of knowledge, and his willingness to assist almost anyone from day one.’’
At last week’s memorial service he said: ‘‘Since his passing, I’ve been amazed at how many people who’ve mentioned the support and advice he was giving them as well.’’
Spary’s final words were: ‘‘He was quietly very proud of his commercial success, but much more openly proud of Suzanna, Tom and Zara.’’