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When I moved to Wanaka in 1983, it was a sleepy little rural town, nestled on the edge of one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Eye-watering beauty and absolute calm. The kind of town where everyone knew everyone, and life was fairly simple.
Fast forward 36 years: still nestled on that stunning lake at the foot of the Southern Alps but we're a very different town indeed. Wanaka has grown - to more than five times the size it was when I arrived - it is vibrant and busy and multi-faceted.
It has matured - despite being one of the most inland towns in New Zealand, you can source just about everything you need without leaving. And it has changed - as has the rest of the Upper Clutha area - an expected and inevitable consequence of growth and development.
Despite this, Wanaka still retains some of that unique character it has always had. It is laid-back, it is calm and it's personal. Locals, seasonal workers, regular visitors and tourists muck in together, and it feels good. Neighbouring Hawea has also grown, as have Albert Town and Luggate.
But the Upper Clutha is at a crossroads, one which the region will reach only once. Our next move is vital.
The planned $400million redevelopment of Wanaka Airport into a jet-capable airport has concerned many of us who live nearby. Not because we are Nimby, but because we understand the consequences of these decisions. These are big decisions for our community, and once made most of them will be irreversible.
Sadly, we don't want to make the same mistakes as Queenstown.
Queenstown Airport Corporation's projections for its two airports are startling. Flights into Queenstown are capped, and so given QAC's dual airport strategy, Wanaka Airport is likely to get the overflow of 2.8million passenger movements by 2035. That's only a teenager away. Ten years later, that number is projected to be 3.9million.
So, for many of us, alarm bells started to ring. And when we started asking questions, we didn't get answers. We were told that this was about "managing growth" and that it was "inevitable" that we needed jets. We were told that experts had been engaged, and that QAC was making decisions.
This fuelled further concern. It is the lack of transparency - the lack of relevant detail - from our local council that is worrying. Despite owning 75.01% of QAC, Southern Lakes residents are in the dark about the details of plans for development. There are deals, strategic alliances and plans which we're not privy to. We're not even allowed to know the details of the 100-year lease our council has granted to QAC over Wanaka Airport - a lease which means we've lost control of our community asset. We've asked, repeatedly, and got the same answer.
Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc was formed by me and a couple of dozen other concerned people. In just a few months, we have grown to nearly 3000 members. More than 450 of us own or manage local businesses, and some of us have multiple businesses. Hundreds of hours of volunteer time and tens of thousands of dollars of donated services have been given. We all want the same thing: transparency from QLDC and QAC, real and proper community consultation, and to be part of shaping the vision for our community's future.
Which is why I had to laugh when I read an opinion piece in the ODT by a fellow resident, painting us as an aggressive group of scaremongering, racist, conspiracy theorists, using spurious tactics, creating fake news and making other locals afraid to speak up. This couldn't be further from the truth. None of these assertions are founded in fact; there is no detail to back any of it up.
We seek facts, information, careful and in-depth analysis looking at all the options - rather than broad sweeping statements and predetermined outcomes. We seek consultation and involvement - rather than exclusion and lack of voice. We want decisions to be community-led, not shareholder-led and determined by board members in Auckland. We want proper process, not secret side deals.
It's because we're seeking these things, asking these questions, that our group has swelled in numbers. Thousands of people are uniting to say "enough" to backroom deals and private conversations. Information and facts are the major prerequisite for constructive debate. All of the information needs to be openly examined, discussed and weighed by the community as part of the process of coming to a consensus on the future of airport services in the region.
Regardless of which side of the fence we sit on, this is a mandate for everyone in our community. And this is what we're fighting for.
- Noel Williams worked in the ski and tourism industries before embarking on a 25-year career in real estate. He now provides accommodation to visitors.