Red carpet and red tape

All might not yet be lost for the proposed $100 million waterfront hotel in Dunedin, but its future does not look promising based on the comments of backer Jing Song, of Queenstown.

Although she says she has not given up hope and remains committed to Dunedin, the delays and costs in pursuing the project have been frustrating. Finding the way through complex planning issues is now a ''long shot''. The end of the project would be disappointing. Dunedin needs a large four/five star hotel and the economic boost and added diversification that would provide.

As the city becomes ever more reliant on the university - with the Hillside railway workshops having closed, government departments retrenching and post office mail sorting and other work shifting to Christchurch - the city has to be ready to take any reasonable opportunities.

That might be via gas exploration or it might be a new hotel backed by Chinese money.

Every addition could help maintain vibrancy and strength in Dunedin.

Details of the luxury, 27-storey, five-star hotel were revealed in May, 2012, to a business audience at Forsyth Barr Stadium. From this pragmatic corner, at least, the plan was greeted enthusiastically. Tourism Dunedin chief executive Hamish Saxton said the hotel would provide confidence in Dunedin as a business centre. The then Otago Chamber of Commerce president, Peter McIntyre, said the announcement was a huge vote of confidence in the city with many flow-on benefits to schools, the university, the polytech, the service sector, engineering and building businesses.

Remember, too, the interest from Mayor Dave Cull. He said the proposal was not just ''nice to have''.

Although there were some consent hurdles, Mr Cull assured the audience council chief executive Paul Order was prepared to ''run out the red carpet, not red tape, in this instance''.

Nearly two years on, the plan for the Wharf St site is stuck. Consent as proposed was denied under council planning rules and talks with the council have been unable to find a way forward. So much, it would seem, for red carpet rather than red tape. Perhaps the hotel was too tall and the site unsuitable.

Nevertheless, the first reaction of many was to oppose, and submissions against the hotel poured in. Perhaps the council was trying as hard as it could within the constraints of the Resource Management Act and the District Plan. But, whatever the reasons, progress has not been forthcoming.

Mrs Song and her husband - Chinese construction company owner Ping Cao - are expected to have until March to reach agreement with the Dunedin City Council in behind-the-scenes talks aimed at rescuing the project. Time, clearly, is running out.

Disconcerting, too, is the fact more than $1 million has reportedly already been spent by promoters with the driving of the first pile still a long way off, if it happens at all.

Meanwhile, Dunedin's reputation as an unfriendly city for development and business grows.

The understandable reaction from outside business people, it seems, is to bypass the city. There are no easy answers to these issues, because public reaction and negotiating through the Resource Management Act are part of our system. They provide a level of safeguard, and developments can be inappropriate or damaging.

But the hurdles of time and money in hearings and appeals and in meeting long lists of rules can also be an impediment to worthwhile development. And vociferous determined groups can, in effect, frustrate and delay and simply make it too hard to make progress.

In the hotel's case, it seems a shame for all sides that more could not have been done before the proposal was launched to make sure it was feasible from a planning point of view. As it appears in the case of the proposed Chinese-backed school, there seems to be room to move.

It will be an even bigger shame if the hotel is now abandoned. While, obviously, it is difficult to know what is happening behind the scenes, it must be hoped that as much red carpet as possible is being laid out and that red tape is being kept to the minimum. It must be hoped the flagging project can be resurrected in some form.

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