That man Cleary

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Controversial Irish billionaire property tycoon talks turkey

Billionaire Queenstown property player Eamon Cleary has finally opened up on the historic Arrowtown cottages furore.

The normally media-shy Irishman – ranked third on National Business Review’s 2009 Rich List with an estimated wealth of $2 billion – faced community criticism in late 2006 when it was revealed three iconic Arrowtown cottages owned by him had fallen into disrepair.

Cleary – who agreed to last Monday’s impromptu interview when spotted in town by Mountain Scene – will no doubt reopen old wounds with what’s believed to be his first comment on the cottages saga.

Asked about the controversy, he just says: “Small-town stuff.”

Not for Wakatipu residents it wasn’t.

Their letters howling in protest at the decaying state of the cottages – which date back to the 1870s – flooded into Mountain Scene for weeks during a spirited Save the Cottages campaign.

Nor was it “small-town stuff” for then-Otago MP Jacqui Dean, who urged Cleary to “front up to the Arrow­town com­munity and explain himself”.

Lakes District Museum director David Clarke, in a moving piece for Mountain Scene at the time, described them as “national treasures” representing important Kiwi history.

Cleary, based in Malta, says he’s back in Queenstown at his Lake Hayes home for three weeks and isn’t concerned by flak he copped during the cottages campaign.

“I’m well used to that,” Cleary says. “People [like me] get criticised all of the time.”

Eventually, the saga had a happy ending when white knight developer John Martin brokered a deal to buy the cottages off Cleary for $1.9 million.

Martin immediately on-sold them to Queens­town Lakes District Council at the same price, sparking a huge celebratory street party in Arrowtown. Cleary this week shrugs off the sale to Martin as “just another deal”.
“I think they had gone past their expiry date – we were planning on doing them up.”

Cleary also reveals why he bought Arrowtown’s oldest stone house.

Breaking the news in April 2007, Mountain Scene said Cleary is understood to have paid $4.5m for the one-hectare Reidhaven spread owned by 85-year-old Jack Reid – Arrowtown’s last mayor – whose family had owned the home for 141 years.

Reid is allowed to remain in the property at a peppercorn rental till he dies.

Cleary: “It’s a big area of land in Arrowtown. Arrowtown can’t grow any place. It’s surrounded by three golf courses and Coronet Peak on the other side. It can never get any bigger.”

The billionaire also has an answer for any disgruntled commercial tenants grumbling about rents in his sizeable downtown Queenstown property portfolio.

“The market sets the rent, not me. The rents are dictated by the market.

“The rent in town has gone up possibly about 10 per cent per year over the last 20 years, on average, and there’s no reason why they won’t go up the same over the next 20 years for the prime areas.”

His Queenstown portfolio, which he says comprises the bulk of his NZ property investments, includes Coronet Peak Station, the large building at the top of Queenstown Mall fronted by Starbucks, the newly redeveloped Plaza Arcade adjoining Shotover and Beach Streets, and the Queenstown Medical Centre building.

Cleary is optimistic about the resort’s future and has no plans to sell any Queenstown property.

In fact, he’ll “maybe buy some more”.

“There may be opportunities later on in the year. Money’s going to get scarcer, banks are not loaning money as freely as they were.”

He’ll only look at “prime areas” such as The Mall or Camp and Beach Streets.

“It’s looking very positive. Short-term, maybe a couple of lean years, but long-term, just tourism-wise, it has a
lot going for it.”

And his $2 billion wealth, as estimated by NBR? “I won’t comment on that at all.”