For someone whose Queenstown life only began 11 years ago, sharebroker Sir Eion Edgar – who celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday – has made an amazing contribution to the resort. Philip Chandler reports
As he prepared for his 70th birthday bash, prominent Queenstown-based investor and philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar has good news: “I’m not slowing down.”
It’s good news because, after relocating from Dunedin in December 2003, Edgar’s already left a significant mark in town.
Without his readiness to part with substantial money, Queenstown Resort College and the local-based Winter Games wouldn’t have got off the ground.
And the Queenstown Trails Trust could have struggled to fundraise to complete its new 110 kilometre network of cycling/walking trails around the Wakatipu.
The founder and long-time chairman of sharebroking empire Forsyth Barr – who’s bounced back from double knee replacement surgery in October – says he was approached to finance QRC by educator Jan Fitz-Gerald in early 2003.
“I said, ‘fantastic’ – I couldn’t understand why someone hadn’t done it earlier.”
At the time he was still Dunedin-based chancellor of the University of Otago.
Edgar says he first sought approval from the university’s council to pursue the project once he retired as chancellor.
“They said, ‘no conflict, delighted you’ll do it’.”
After eventually finding land for a building, the college opened for classes in 2006.
“It hasn’t been easy, it’s cost a lot of money but it’s been one of the best things for Queenstown.
“It’s not seasonal – the kids are there 50 weeks a year – and it adds real value to all aspects of tourism.”
The Queenstown and Wanaka-based Winter Games, meanwhile, were Edgar’s own brainwave while serving as president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee.
He says the United States Olympic Committee was discussing a summer games for Pacific Rim countries when he said to his secretary-general Barry Maister, “why don’t we have a Winter Games because all of these other countries are in the northern hemisphere?”
Following a feasibility study by current chief executive Arthur Klap, the games have run every two years since 2009.
The first event, coinciding with the global financial crisis, was particularly tough, but, like QRC, Edgar’s happily bankrolled the games as he believes in them.
“It has a huge multiplier effect in promoting the Queenstown/Wanaka region and giving young NZ athletes the opportunity to perform.”
Edgar says his trails trust involvement arose after he was invited to go on a tramp with a local walking group.
“A lovely guy called Cliff Broad said, ‘Eion, can you help us, I’ve got involved with this Wakatipu Trails Trust and it’s going nowhere.
“‘Would you be prepared to become the patron and back it?’”
As he and his wife Jan were keen walkers, he readily accepted.
Subsequently, along with dynamic chief executive Kaye Parker, he played a leading role in the campaign to raise $6 million to complete the trail network.
He says the trust was also fortunate it got Government support to join the NZ Cycle Trail network.
Edgar, who allocates a third of his time to “raising money for good causes”, says: “I learnt from the early days that if you put your own money up first, it makes it a lot easier to then ask others.”
He’s also a regular bidder in local charity auctions – the back of his garage is packed with items he didn’t want “but the auction was a bit dull.”
Coming from Dunedin, whose people, he quips, have very short hands and long pockets, Queenstown’s a very generous community, he says.
“There’s people who could do more but also there’s an awful lot of people that go out of their way.
“To get 200 patrons for the Winter Games, 90 per cent of them from Queenstown, just demonstrates the generosity.”
He’s also never come across a more positive community.
“The wonderful thing about Queenstown is 98 per cent of the people who live here weren’t born here so they made the decision to come here.
“They’re then determined to prove they were right to make that decision, so you get this enormous enthusiasm.”
Edgar, though, thanks his wife for keeping some of his own enthusiasms in check.
“I’m always over-enthusiastic, and Jan’s got this lovely balance of, ‘wait on, let’s be a bit sensible about this’ – otherwise, I would probably have gone overboard.”
To be fair, some people think he’s over the top with his push for Queenstown Airport to be relocated from Frankton to Queenstown Hill, but he remains undaunted.
“Even if get Lot 6, we are going to need two full runways and longer runways, neither of which you can do at Frankton.
“In the past the economics of building an airport on Queenstown Hill didn’t work, but that Frankton land is now so valuable they’ll be able to sell that to fund the new one.
“I’m totally in favour and I’ll be proved right – even if I have to live to 90.”