Hotel debate has smelter overtones

The Save Aramoana sign, as it was in 2005. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
The Save Aramoana sign, as it was in 2005. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.

As the debate over the proposed waterfront hotel continues, Allan Dick draws comparisons with an earlier controversy which divided Dunedin, the Aramoana smelter.

Recently, as I drove over Mt Cargill from Waitati down into Port Chalmers, I saw the words ''Save Aramoana'' daubed on the side of an old farm building. I know the farm building is old - it has to be, because the Aramoana smelter debate occupied us all in 1980 and 1981. A long time ago.

For those not old enough to remember anything about that debate, let me remind you. At the time, Dunedin was going through a troubled period - the greatest guessing game in the media was ''which company is going to close or shift its operations out of Dunedin next?''

This was also the time of Rob Muldoon and Bill Birch's ''Think Big'' strategies. The Clyde dam project had been pretty much mothballed because national growth was so slow, there was no real need for the extra power. Among the Think Big projects envisaged by the government was a second aluminium smelter, joining that at Tiwai Point.

Fletchers went into a joint venture with the Swiss company Alusuisse and began looking about for a suitable site for the smelter, as work on the Clyde dam was cranked up again.

Because there were going to be plenty of economic benefits from a smelter, there was enthusiastic negotiating from various regions for it.

Finally, the Fletcher-Alusuisse consortium narrowed the choice down to a second site near Invercargill or Aramaona. But while there were many benefits from having a smelter on your backdoor step, there would also be downsides.

The debate in Dunedin raged and like the recent and ongoing stadium row, split the community down the middle. The heat was exacerbated by the division over whether the Clyde dam was a wise thing or not and astride it all, on a national level, was the Springbok tour.

These were heady times to be both a citizen and in the media. I was the news editor and talkback host at Radio Otago at the time and while I managed the news in a strictly neutral way, my personal stand was Dunedin was in such dire straits it needed the smelter. It was almost station policy, really.

The atmosphere in Dunedin was such I managed to get equal billing with the then mayor Cliff Skeggs on anti-smelter graffiti around town.

After months of tension-filled analysis of the rival sites, Aramoana was chosen, but then negotiations began with the government over the price of electricity - a back-to-front process, you might think.

About this time I took a six week holiday and went to Europe, fitting in a self-funded, side-trip to Switzerland to take a look at the operations of an Alusiusse smelter, slap bang in the middle of a heavily populated valley.

While I was there, the Alusuisse board decided the government wasn't giving them electricity cheaply enough and left the consortium.

Fletchers cast about for a new partner but it all came to nothing and so Aramoana was left to the seabirds and slipped from the headlines, until David Gray.

That was all so long ago.

It is fitting that the ''Save Aramoana'' graffiti on the farm building has survived as long as it has, and as I drove I was reminded of the angst the smelter debate had created in Dunedin, particularly when, in the distance, I could clearly see the proposed site of the smelter.

I stopped the car and paused for a few minutes imagining what the tranquil, lovely scene I was looking at would be like today if the smelter had gone ahead. There would have been a great, ugly blot of heavy industry there, right where cruise ships carefully thread their way into Otago Harbour and where tourist boats take people to see albatrosses and other wildlife. It would have been a really great look! And, of course, given the vagaries and unpredictability of the global aluminium industry, what assurance is there that the smelter would still have been operating today? It might just be a grey, ugly, crumbling ruin.

Back then, Dunedin's future was far more parlous than it is today. Back then Dunedin was a tightly corseted place - heavens, cafes didn't exist and nobody was allowed to have tables and chairs on the footpaths outside restaurants and tourism was only a dream in the minds of two or three people. Dunedin was doom and gloom and the smelter was seen, by many, to be needed, otherwise it would become a ghost town.

Dunedin survived and today it is a prettier, far more vibrant place and is well and truly on the tourist map.

All of which begs the question: does the city need a huge hotel and apartment block on the harbour foreshore to attract more tourists? Or would the long-delayed and much talked-about conversion of the old Chief Post Office be a better bet?

Of course it would be, but the project on the table is not the conversion of the CPO and the developer is entitled to try and spend his money where he wants. I live in Oamaru these days, so you could say the whole thing is none of my business, but I find the comparison between the proposed hotel and the Aramoana smelter quite compelling.

 - Allan Dick, former talkback host and motoring writer, has returned to Otago after living in Auckland for 25 years.



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