Keen to connect the right elements

Although visitor and population growth are predicted to continue, concerns have been raised as to whether the Queenstown Lakes District’s heavy reliance on tourism and construction is sustainable and possibly risky. Kerrie Waterworth spoke to the Queenstown Lakes District Council’s newly appointed economic development manager, Peter Harris, whose job is to encourage and promote new initiatives and business opportunities across the region.

Peter Harris has only been in the job just over a month, but already he has experienced one reason why Queenstown employers and aspiring entrepreneurs find it hard to attract highly skilled employees to come to work in the town, expand their companies and diversify the largely tourism and construction-based economy.

‘‘Buying a house here is a big call. We’ve rented a place for the moment.’’

Mr Harris started in July and in August the average house price in Queenstown was $1,098,000, according to Quotable Value (QV), $50,000 more than the average house price in Auckland and 18% higher than it cost to buy a house in Queenstown 12 months ago. Mr Harris said he went through the same decision-making process many people who wanted to move to Queenstown had to go through, ‘‘such as, can we afford to live here and what are the realities of housing and traffic’’.

‘‘Queenstown is not necessarily an easy place to decide to move to, but my partner and I both managed to find jobs and so far it’s been fantastic.’’

Mr Harris said despite the town’s lack of affordable housing and the traffic, the job of economic development manager for the QLDC was ‘‘too good’’ not to apply for. ‘‘Economic development is about recognising opportunities in a district sense, weaving people and funding together and trying to lift the game of the district.’’

There was no rule book for economic development, it was not prescriptive and it could be very creative. ‘‘The Queenstown Lakes district has such an interesting mix of both challenges and opportunities and when I saw the position advertised it just sort of grabbed me.’’

Meeting challenges and creating economic opportunities is what Mr Harris has been doing for most of his working life.

The 52-year-old former trained teacher was born in Waimate and went to university in Christchurch, graduating from the University of Canterbury with a bachelor of commerce degree in farm management.

He has not worked on a farm since he finished his degree ‘‘but the basics of budgeting and business are the same whether it’s farm-related business or not’’.

From university Mr Harris went straight into business with his now ex-wife and a friend making ‘‘Gondwana’’ creative kits before moving to Dunedin, where he ran the Dunedin City Council economic development unit for  10  years.

‘‘When I first started the DCC job, Dunedin had a tendency to be pretty hard on itself, but I think, over time, it has raised its chin in a business sense and it is now known nationally as a much more innovative place than it was  10  or  15 years ago.’’

The unit instigated support for start-up companies and initiated a number of projects, but the one he is most proud of is the Audacious business plan competition for students which continues today.

He returned to education when he took up the challenge of being an ‘‘innovation facilitator’’ for the Otago Polytechnic and in charge of a $1 million innovation fund. The idea behind the fund was for the polytechnic to stay ahead of the game amid a rapidly changing tertiary environment. One of the initiatives Mr Harris developed was an online micro-credential system known as EduBits (micro-credentials recognise the achievement of a defined set of skills and knowledge).

‘‘Micro-credentials is a massive trend overseas and I think New Zealand is only just waking up to it. OP had the foresight to start working on it before anyone else really picked up on it and I think it’s going to be really interesting to see where that goes.’’ When the appointment of Mr Harris to the QLDC was announced by QLDC general manager corporate services Meaghan Miller, she said the new position of economic development manager was created in response to the need to develop a plan for ‘‘delivering the objectives of the February 2015 QLDC Economic Development Strategy.’’

‘‘It represented a future-focused approach by council to ensure the continued diversification and resilience if our economy,’’ she said.

The 2015 economic development strategy listed the main challenges to improving economic performance in the district as its relatively small size, its distance from major markets, the cost of housing and living, the pressure on infrastructure and the dominance of the visitor economy.

The objectives and priorities of the strategy were to enhance the quality of the natural, business and living environments of the district, facilitate the growth of a knowledge based sector, grow the proportion of higher value visitors, and future proof infrastructure. Six weeks into the job Mr Harris said  there was a big task ahead of him but his immediate one was to ‘‘get around the traps’’ to as wide a range of people as he could. ‘‘There are a lot of people who have come here because they want to be here, and will build their businesses around that despite the fact it might be easier to do it in Auckland. There are agencies that support businesses but don’t have the people on the ground here so I can help plug them in to get the support they would have in a bigger city.’’ He said he had not come here to ‘‘to push his own barrow’’ but rather to facilitate ‘‘good outcomes’’ for people with ideas, and ‘‘provide a bit of focus and energy to pull things together’’.

He said as Queenstown was likely to remain one of the country’s most ‘‘iconic’’ tourist destinations, tourism and construction would continue to be its key industries but there were opportunities to combine tourism with other industries. ‘‘Sometimes, the most interesting thing is where two industries overlap, so rather than purely tourism or purely technology we could explore the idea of tourism technology. That has really interesting potential for the whole district because it’s plugging in to the dominant industry but not entirely reliant on people turning up to sleep in a bed or have an experience.’’

Mr Harris said although he was living in Queenstown, the geographic boundaries of his job were as wide as the council boundaries.‘‘ I haven’t been to some of the smaller centres yet but I’m really happy to, and if somebody wants to invite me over and tell me what they’re up to and what their vision is, then I’m more than happy to do that. In terms of supporting start-ups, there has probably been more going on in Wanaka with the Cube and the Cell but that’s something that I’m interested in to see whether we can get those sorts of community of entrepreneurs on both sides.’’

Some of the world’s wealthiest and well-connected people have bought homes in the Queenstown Lakes district including Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal co-founder and Trump adviser who has a property near Lake Wanaka. Mr Harris said he imagined a lot of start-ups across Otago would ‘‘dearly love to be able to spend time rubbing shoulders with them’’.

‘‘Some of them will want to use this place as a bolt hole where they don’t really want to have any interaction, and others may well be open to that and might not be given the chance, so if we can find some of those people  and plug them in then I think that’s got massive benefits for the people who are starting up businesses in this area but also across the region.’’

Everyone he  had met so far  had fully recognised  diversifying the economy was important, but the attitude he had seen from within the QLDC, the mayor and the chief executive, was really positive. ‘‘It’s a case of yep, we’ve got a whole lot of challenges coming at us but we’ve just to get on with solving them and that’s really exciting.’’

So, Mr Thiel, if you are reading this, you know whom to contact.


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