Tarras airport enables new vision for Queenstown?

National Business Review, 14 August 2020

Christchurch International Airport Ltd’s announcement of their proposal to build an international airport at Tarras has set a rather large and interesting cat among the pigeons. 

This issue was always larger than QLDC and QAC, but the current council’s preference for turbocharging last century’s business as usual, bums on seats tourism model – regardless of its manifold ramifications and limits –  will surely be coming more under the microscope. 

Because with Tarras, players now include four councils, two electorates, multiple communities and three competing airports, two of which are majority-council owned and one with the government as shareholder too.

Following the last two days’ flurry of PR from QAC chair and QLDC Mayor, exposing their entrenched positions, here is a piece from FlightPlan2050, who have been trying to persuade both entities of the logic of their argument to instead use ZQN’s Frankton Flat’s invaluable land to build a well-designed, urban campus.

QLDC and QAC have had this information for over a year and have so far not responded, beyond the mayor’s statement that it was “the silliest idea” he had heard.   Obviously CIAL don’t agree.  And nor did the mayor’s MartinJenkins report, which identified it as offering the best long-term prosperity and connectivity for the district.

LINK to the article

As this article is behind the National Business Review paywall, for those who don’t have a subscription we have reprinted it below with permission.

Tarras airport allows new vision for Queenstown

Shifting Queenstown’s airport would release land ideal for urban development

Frankton Flats, currently used by Queenstown Airport, could become an urban campus

The Tarras Airport initiative from Christchurch International Airport Ltd presents an enormous opportunity for both business and the environment.

But only if coordinated with the closure of Queenstown Airport to unlock ZQN’s land value and urban potential, allowing Queenstown Lakes’ economy to diversify and both emissions and business costs to be reduced.

Closure of Queenstown Airport would release more than $1.2 billion land value that could be returned to QAC’s owners, providing a massive $900 million to Queenstown Lakes District Council and $300 million to Auckland International Airport Ltd, for its $27.7 million investment in 2010.

This $900 million would enable unprecedented investment by QLDC into the infrastructure and community amenities the district needs. Instead, the Council is currently cap in hand to the government for $278 million of taxpayer funds and is scheduling a bed tax to raise a further $374 million over 10 years for such investment.

Further expansion of Queenstown Airport is constrained by mountains, urban encroachment and limits to safe operation. Air New Zealand called for a new regional airport in its submissions to Queenstown Airport Corp in 2018, but QAC has instead pursued a dual-airport plan that includes development of a second international airport at Wānaka.

The dual airport model is fundamentally flawed, whether the overflow were to go to Wānaka or Tarras.

All the ancillary businesses within the air-travel sector – from airlines and airport shops to vehicle rentals and supply logistics – would be worse off. They would be forced to either operate from two sites or to lose market share. With two sites, companies would face higher capital, operational and employment costs, structurally undermining the profitability – and therefore wages and salaries – of the whole air-transport sector of this region. The more than 100 businesses and 1000 people employed would be made worse off, and this structural disadvantage would be baked into the system forever.

A single regional airport in Tarras would be superior to any alternative outcome. ZQN has become a regional hub, with QAC data showing fewer than half of air travellers actually destined for the Wakatipu. Wānaka, the upper Clutha and Central Otago provide half ZQN’s catchment. Tarras would have significantly lower lease and property costs for all associated businesses and would centralise the region’s supply logistics to Cromwell, a trend already well established.

The potential catchment of a Tarras airport

By 2038, Queenstown’s population is forecast to double from the current 40,000 normally resident. A high-density campus on the only sunny, flat and central location in the Wakatipu Basin would enable urban development to be concentrated onto Frankton Flats. Versus the status quo of high-emission and environmentally damaging, developer-led urban sprawl, congested roads and thinly spread infrastructure networks that increasingly erode this outstanding natural landscape.

Urban concentration, as this proposal would enable, is also key to achieving economic diversification to the higher-value, knowledge-based businesses that many locals are calling for. Knowledge economies require the geographic concentration of skilled people, something that dispersed tourism development fails to achieve. A cleverly designed, high-density campus on Frankton Flats could become, as Sir Paul Callaghan extolled, “a place where talent wants to live.”

Such economic diversification to high-income sectors would help pivot away from low-value “bums on seats” tourism. And a Tarras Airport would better distribute the benefits and impacts of tourism to the wider region, as Tourism Industry Aotearoa advocates.

A single airport at Tarras would systemically improve the region’s housing affordability. More than a thousand workers could relocate away from New Zealand’s most expensive centre to more affordable townships. Densification of Frankton Flats would also offer construction and infrastructure economies, reducing carbon footprint per person and enabling lower build costs per dwelling. Council control could ensure an appropriate range of accommodation options.

Frankton Flats is the centre of the Wakatipu’s transport network and its densification would better enable district-wide public transport. It would also let a significant population live in a walkable urban environment, with all the commercial and community amenities they need, without reliance on private vehicles.

The existing helicopter operations could continue from a transport hub on Frankton Flats. Fixed-wing GA could be relocated to Kingston Aerodrome or a new facility on Queenstown Hill, with required investment available from the sale of ZQN’s Frankton land.

Closure of Queenstown Airport would release more than $1.2 billion land value

The distance from Queenstown to Tarras is acceptable. It is closer than airports to many international resorts, like Chamonix and Whistler, with the inevitable conclusion that relocation of the airport to an hour’s drive from Queenstown would not collapse our tourism economy.

Resolving future air connectivity for this region now involves four councils, two electorates, multiple communities and three competing airports, two being majority-council owned. These entities operate in disconnected silos with little interest, capacity or mandate to work together to deliver a cohesive or sensible outcome for the region – much less New Zealand. It is time for central government to take a leadership role.

The Tarras Airport proposal is a natural candidate for the expedited Covid-response resource consent process, in terms of potential construction jobs and resetting national infrastructure spend for the greatest economic, environmental and community long-term benefits.

Two international airports within an hour of each other would not meet such a test. Nor would continuing with an airport so severely constrained by topography, community opposition, safety issues and thousands of neighbours when the land could be put to much better use.

Instead of doubling down on last century’s “business-as-usual” thinking, this is a time to be open-minded, to look beyond self and business interest, and to consider the whole community, region and national infrastructure network. I encourage people to seriously explore these ideas.

By John Hilhorst, a member of the FlightPlan2050 group promoting an alternative development plan for Queenstown.

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