Is the Queenstown centre a $60m irrelevance?


Last week’s announcement of a $500 million convention centre for Christchurch is important for Queenstown. 

But not for the reason you think. 

Opponents of the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s planned $60 million centre, above town at the old camp ground site, might seize on last week’s news saying the government’s $284m contribution means there will be little appetite to spend too much taxpayer money here. 

Prime Minister John Key has already made that clear, so that’s not new. 

Opponents will conclude, as they already have, that it’s better for a private developer to build their own centre, funded from their own pocket, at Frankton. 

Others might look at the business model for the Christchurch and Auckland convention centres and figure something similar might happen here. 

It’s the old trick where an unpopular plan is put before the public and after somewhat of an outcry, and at the last minute, the plan is withdrawn and a “compromise” is reached. 

The trick is that the compromise was the original plan all along and the unpopular version was just an unappetising smokescreen. 

The compromise, as in Christchurch’s case, might involve a consortium of private developers. 

Of course, there are already discussions with Ngai Tahu Tourism about developing hot pools on the site but that seems unlikely to cover much of the centre’s construction costs. 

The smart money, apparently, is on SkyCity swooping in and “saving” the ratepayer more than $30m of dough. The listed casino company, which was initially chosen as Queenstown’s preferred operator, has form in Auckland where it is building a $402m centre. 

SkyCity might laugh that off. 

The difficulty with such a proposal is it might require a fresh casino licence application. 

But, if you’re giving up two licences for one, it would be a ballsy New Zealand Gambling Commission to veto that. 

Surely, SkyCity would prefer to have one, bigger site rather than two – and at street level, not hidden away on an upper floor. 

This is all delicious speculation but there’s a more important issue here. 

That is, the country’s biggest convention centre players are spending an eye-watering $900m to build their centres elsewhere. 

They’re not going to let some upstart centre in a small town – no matter how good the scenery is – take their business away. 

No expense will be spared to ensure those bigger centres get as much business as possible, leaving Queenstown with the dregs, or the after-party. 

When Tourism New Zealand blew through town last month it talked about marketing the country’s convention centre venues to the world. Queenstown and its proposed centre wasn’t mentioned. 

That gives me the impression that the full weight of the government’s tourism marketing arm will be behind Auckland and Christchurch, at least, and probably Wellington. 

Queenstown’s planned centre will cater for up to 1000 people for a one-off event and up to 750 people for a full conference. 

Because of its lack of scale is it already irrelevant? 

And that’s before the Queenstown hotels which already host conferences start defending their patch. 

I’m just fresh to town and the debate, admittedly. 

But to my mind the council still has a big PR job to do, especially over this proposal’s viability.