Queenstown mayor lays down centre bottom line

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Queenstown’s mayor has a stark message for Government – we need $20 million for an international convention centre or it’s bust.

Queenstown Lakes District Council is leading a local push for a proposed international-calibre centre in central Queenstown but is still awaiting a crucial Government funding announcement.

The council advanced it another stage last week, voting to insert the megabucks project into its draft Annual Plan, triggering a second round of public consultation.

Latest costings put a centre – proposed to go on council-owned Lakeview land up Man Street – at $55.5 million including $1.9m for infrastructure upgrades. Council’s worst-case scenario is its share is $30.9 million with $20m from Government and $5m other sources like sponsorship.

Queenstown mayor Vanessa van Uden formally requested a Government contribution of $20 million back in October and is yet to hear back – and says at this stage it still remains just “a hope”.

However, Van Uden this week hints anything less than $20m isn’t going to cut it: “I think the message from the last council meeting was at $10m [from Government] it’s not viable for this community.

“Viable is probably not the right word – we think that’s too big a bill for the ratepayers.”

As for timing, she says she’d “like it to be soon”.

“The good thing is the letter went at the end of last year and there hasn’t been a flat out no.”

The office of Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce who will ultimately make the decision on the request wasn’t shedding any light on a decision yesterday: “There is no further update at this stage.”

However, council chief executive Adam Feeley is feeling bullish and goes further than Van Uden’s “hope” description: “It’s a pretty reasonable hope – because it’s a reasonable expectation to have.

“We’ve done the economic impact of this convention centre and it says there is roughly the same benefit to NZ Inc. There’s roughly $20-30m a year of economic benefit to Queenstown and roughly $20m benefit to NZ.

“There’s somewhere in the region of 450 jobs here and 300 jobs for NZ in general.”

“You could quite reasonably say to the NZ Government ‘We’re business partners in this one, we’re putting up $30.9m, we’re asking you to put up $20m and you’ll get a very good return’,” he says. “And it’s very unfair for the ratepayers to shoulder a disproportionate high cost of that construction.”

Feeley adds: “I don’t think we can explain it any more fairly or intensely than we’ve tried – we wait with baited breath.”

When Prime Minister John Key – also the Tourism Minister – last visited Queenstown he reiterated that Government had previously “tacitly given an indication it’s prepared to put in cash”.

“Is it enough? The answer is no on current funding proposals but nor are we necessarily looking to put in a lot more.”

Key ruled out repeating a similar deal to the one done in Auckland with casino operator SkyCity Entertainment Group, which saw SkyCity agree to build a $400 million national convention centre in return for concessions including more pokie machines, gaming tables and a license extension for its Auckland casino.

Asked if there was an appetite for a convention centre deal in Queenstown with SkyCity – which would require Government to change the law to allow its downtown casino licences to be shifted to Lakeview – Key replied: “I don’t think so no.”

But he added: “Just as in Auckland where we found a way through that, we’re going to have to do that in Queenstown.

“It’s not straightforward and not easy…but we have to find a way to allow your council to get a convention centre up and running.”

Meanwhile, council no longer has a preferred consortium for the project after it last week revealed convention centre talks with Ngai Tahu Property, infrastructure specialists Morrison and Co and operator SkyCity had not resulted in a “mutually agreeable option”.

Remarkables Park co-director Alastair Porter vows he’s continuing to pursue a privately-funded centre in Frankton, but Feeley says he’s seen little information about the touted proposal and doesn’t believe it will be of a scale that’ll attract lucrative international conferences.
 
Feeley says quantity surveyors price an international calibre centre at $50m: “Unless I’ve got something wrong, Porter said he’s spending $20-$30m. Whatever it is, it’s not an international centre. Would you still want to build a $20m to $30m one and a $55m centre? It’s a call for council but it does seem an odd thing to do.”