Build a conference centre and surely they will come

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There is, as Queenstown councillor Cath Gilmour admits, a sweet irony in Queenstown Airport Corporation’s new dividend money saving her Memorial Hall upgrade.

The dividend stream, anticipated to be $2.5 million for the coming financial year, is only possible so soon thanks to Auckland Airport’s controversial $27.7m, buy-up of 24.99 per cent of Queenstown airport.
 
Gilmour, who has made the Memorial Hall her pet project and is incredibly passionate about it, was bitterly opposed to the way Auckland secretly snapped up its share of community-owned Queenstown Airport.
 
“I have to admit there is a sweet irony in that – and all that proves is we’re all capable of moving on,” Gilmour hooted with delight down the phone to me yesterday.
 
She’s right about the sweet irony bit – though I doubt the latter part of her statement is universal. Bile remains, particularly in parts of the Queenstown business community, about that deal.
 
Gilmour adds: “You’ll remember, however, what I opposed was the process. I wasn’t philosophically opposed to selling up to a quarter of the airport. That wasn’t my problem – my problem was how it happened. I still stand by that.
 
“But the thing is the deal is done, the money’s there, the hall needed it and I’d be a muggins to not say ‘Excuse me but here’s a fantastic cause’. And I’m very grateful for it.”
 
Fair enough. 

As it happens, that airport deal was announced exactly two years ago.
 
So it’s somewhat fitting timing that earlier this week Gilmour and her fellow Queenstown Lakes councillors decided to dip into that money for the hall. 

It’s enabled a pretty no-fuss way to meet an emergency request for a $500,000 grant that will enable the hall upgrade to go ahead.
 
Councillors briefly debated whether to loan-fund the money instead of using the airport dividend. But you could sense going down the trickier track of trying to loan-fund it was going to give council finance boss Stewart Burns an instant headache.
 
That’d mean diving back into budgets and spending plans and doing a lot of rearranging – and no doubt asking the community for input.
 
There was no time for that – the hall upgrade, with a tender due to be selected and $2.2m in funds already pledged from trusts, the community, council and private businesses, was going to live or die on councillors’ decision on the day. 

Probably, the Memorial Hall upgrade couldn’t be a more fitting use for the dividend money. 

Council still hasn’t finalised its policy for how it’ll be used in future but at this stage it looks like half will go toward debt repayment and the other half for community projects.
 
That ongoing dividend stream presents a great opportunity for Queenstown, which has always struggled to fund vital infrastructure.
 
Which brings me to the possibility of such money being siphoned towards a conference centre.
 
With news this week in Mountain Scene that a new report estimates it’ll cost $43m, our thrifty council is going to be stretched to find its share.
 
The report suggests council tips in $17.5m. If you sat through the debate about whether or not to chuck a mere $500,000 at the Memorial Hall, you’re going to need a serious cup of tea and lie-down after any debate over $17.5m.
 
It’s been suggested to me by a local businessman that the airport dividend should be quarantined and used to help repay a loan that’ll speed up making the conference centre a reality.
 
“A conference centre would have to be the lowest-hanging fruit in town,” he enthuses.
 
Hard not to agree. And we really didn’t need a consultants’ report to tell how us there’s demand in Queenstown for a specialist conference centre.
 
Talk to any hotelier or corporate event organiser and they’ll bash you about the ears with anecdote after anecdote demonstrating how much demand there is.
 
The Government, via Prime Minister and Tourism Minister John Key, is a fan and open to contributing to a Queenstown centre – but that sort of offer isn’t going to sit around forever.
 
It’s another reason to get a wriggle on with a conference centre and be bold, just like councillors were this week with the Memorial Hall upgrade. 

Expedient maybe, but effective.
 
As Sir Eion Edgar said at the hall upgrade council meeting this week, it’s a no-brainer.
 
Isn’t it?