Thursday, 20th February, 2020

Wanaka Airport: Respecting each other’s opinions – no matter what side of the runway you sit on

By Celia Crosbie

I was one of the lucky individuals allowed to attend a MartinJenkins focus group to discuss the economic and social impact of the development of a future airport (or airports) for our region.

Or so I thought.

I left the two-hour session on Tuesday feeling deflated and a bit battered and bruised from the obvious anger and negativity that was in the room.

As a board member of the Ignite Wanaka Business Chamber, I was nominated to attend the workshop to inform the discussion from a business/economic development perspective. I have been involved in airport discussions since the community engagement exercise back in May 2018, when citizens, ratepayers and stakeholders were asked to come up with their vision for what they’d like Wanaka’s airport to be in 2050 and beyond. In my volunteer role as a Chamber board member, I helped create the 2018 survey that went out to members of the Chamber and Lake Wanaka Tourism. The ‘Wanaka Airport’ issue has been one of my areas of responsibility on the board.

There’s no doubt our members, and business community, are divided on this issue as previous surveys have shown. We didn’t ‘consult’ our members prior to this specific workshop as we are elected by our members to provide input and information on a wide range of subjects during the year. We (Ignite) will strongly be encouraging members and the wider business to complete the survey coming out this week by MartinJenkins as the official opportunity to input, rather than create yet another survey.

At Tuesday’s workshop, I was careful to acknowledge (and separate) my opinions as a contributing citizen, a local of 15 years, a mother of two children who I’d like for them to have the ability to enjoy living here in the future  – and my role representing the Chamber and members of the Upper Clutha business community.

The focus group I attended comprised people representing different business interest groups and general aviation businesses.

There are seven such focus groups taking place in Wanaka and Queenstown. MartinJenkins, the strategic consultancy tasked with undertaking the independent socio and economic impact assessments, promise to cover a large cross-section of perspectives within the district – including education and health representatives, youth groups, religious groups, and so on.

The wider community gets its chance to contribute to the process – an independent online survey will be made available later this week via the QLDC website. Those invited to the workshops are expected to, and deemed to have the mandate to, represent their memberships and report both in and out of the process. This is a fair and democratic process when used in conjunction with other tools for engagement.

We were asked to participate in good faith, to allow a rich discussion of the topics, and to observe Chatham House Rules about who said what and where the sticky dots fell on the work sheets. The Chamber respects the process and so have provided an update to our members here as best we can.

We were each provided with a double-sided, A2-sized summary sheet of key contextual information covering facts about our population, the economy, the environment, current key issues, housing affordability, tourism, projections around growth and airport demand and capacity.

We were given ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ tiles, ranked 1-6, and asked to individually distribute them over environmental, social and economic topics to get a sense of what sort of impact that a future airport development might have.

We were then presented with four “possible future scenarios”, to place sticky dots on a continuum from positive to negative. The scenarios are:

  • Status quo: No change to current noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport and no scheduled services at Wanaka Airport.
  • Expanded noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport; no scheduled services at Wanaka Airport.
  • Dual airport – scheduled air services in Queenstown and Wanaka: Expansion of Queenstown Airport noise boundaries and Wanaka Airport redeveloped to allow for scheduled domestic services (twin engine turbo props [ATRs] and narrow-body jets only).
  • New international airport: Development of new airport in an alternative location (to be determined); Queenstown Airport operates status quo until new international airport is built and then reverts to general aviation only; no scheduled services at Wanaka Airport; general aviation split across three airports.

We see no issue with these scenarios as they largely represent the challenges and opportunities being debated within both Queenstown and Wanaka communities, with the information that is publicly available.

MartinJenkins expects to report its initial findings to QLDC in March, with a final report to council in mid-May. They will not be recommending any one scenario – just presenting the socio-economic profile, issues and insights and the socio and economic impact report.

There was certainly some robust discussion in my group and it was an interesting exercise in body language-watching. I was accused of being “pro-growth” by some participants and, at times, my contributions were scoffed at.

A truly democratic process listens to the views of all and aims to come to a position of compromise based on those views. I felt that the professional facilitators did a great job of listening to all viewpoints. I can’t really say the same about some participants throughout this process.

As the Chamber has stated before, our role is to gather and circulate accurate and professionally sourced information so that we can have well-educated, respectful and safe conversations. We don’t want our business community fighting against each other and feeling too nervous to share their opinions or ask questions.

Here’s the thing. Everyone is entitled to their opinion in this messy, complicated debate – one of the ugliest I’ve seen in my time in Wanaka. But no matter what side of the runway you sit on, we all need to respect what each other has to say – and acting with kindness, respect and grace in the process.

Part of my frustration with Tuesday’s exercise is that people have already formed their strongly held opinions about the possible scenarios based on minimal qualified information.

I still hold on to hope that the future aspirations of “our Wanaka Airport” that we came up with back in the 2018 visioning workshops – of Wanaka Airport becoming the world’s first carbon neutral airport while being an innovator in the aviation tech space, balanced with providing limited domestic flights – eventually falls out of QAC’s masterplan.

I just wish there was more qualified information – from Queenstown Airport Corporation as the source of truth – to help people make an informed decision, instead of people being caught up in a narrative of fear-and-loathing in an information vacuum. We have been told by QAC that this information will come in time should the development of Wanaka Airport eventuate, following this latest process.

No matter what your views are – now is the time to have your say. And if you’re too afraid to share it publicly, the survey is the best opportunity to be heard.

The Wanaka Airport Survey is now online and available here. We strongly urge all members of the community to have their say.

***Celia Crosbie is a former journalist and owner of public relations agency Scope Media. She is a board member of the Ignite Wanaka Business Chamber.