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Aspiring Queenstown mayor’s Achilles’ heel

A former airport boss wants to be re-elected Queenstown mayor. Might his Achilles' heel be about airports? David Williams reports.

Three years ago, Jim Boult became mayor of a council accused of being under-staffed, under-spending on infrastructure, and maligned for wanting to spend millions of dollars on a convention centre.

Roads in the Queenstown-Lakes were clogged, and employers were scrambling to find affordable accommodation for workers. Over-tourism was the catch-cry, with a shortage of hotel beds. Construction firms struggled to fulfill the demands of a building boom.

Enter Boult, the former chief executive of Christchurch International Airport, and developer, who used to own tourism company Shotover Jet. His slogan was for a can-do council, to tackle the big issues in the fast-growing district. He also talked up his connections to Wellington – especially important if the council had any chance of getting Government approval for a bed tax.

(Opponents complained about Boult’s intention to retain directorships, including on the board of local tourism firm Real Journeys. They also made much of his resignation as a director from Stonewood Homes New Zealand Ltd in February 2016, three weeks before it and several related companies collapsed, owing about $20 million.)

Jim Boult on Stonewood Homes – “Yes I am [comfortable with how I conducted myself].”

Boult is standing for re-election in the upcoming local elections, so where are we now?

The convention centre was dropped, and the Transport Agency has spent millions of dollars in the last five years on congestion-easing highways, as well as a new, two-lane bridge across where Lake Wakatipu becomes the Kawarau River. The Otago Regional Council is taking Queenstown more seriously, re-opening an office there, spending money on water monitoring buoys, and agreeing to a cheaper, more frequent bus service.

There have been wins for Boult’s council.

A community referendum backed the mayor’s flagship plan for a bed tax (or visitor levy). The old high school site – a short walk from the central business district – is being turned into houses, thanks to Ngāi Tahu and KiwiBuild.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

On both sides of the Cardrona Valley, in Wanaka and Queenstown, sectors of the community are upset at expansion plans for their local airport. (In Wanaka, that means the re-introduction of domestic services.) The council has courted controversy by applying for a 35-year consent to discharge wastewater into the area’s pristine waterways. And local newspaper Mountain Scene – a paper this writer used to edit – has accused the council for rubber-stamping decisions and a lack of discussion at public meetings.

Jim Boult on Lime scooters – “I’m ambivalent about it.”

The rudder has moved on some big issues.

A new $2 bus service has made a big difference, says Frankton Community Association chairman Glyn Lewers. “I wouldn’t say they’ve stopped the congestion but they’ve certainly made a difference in getting people out of cars,” he says. “It’s now probably becoming a victim of its own success now where they need to start at looking at increasing the coverage and service.”

(Boult says the old network would carry 30,000 people per month. In April – a “relatively quiet month”, Boult says, although it included Easter and, soon after, Anzac Day – 125,000 people rode the buses. “Is that success, or is that success?”)

Paul Anderson, chief executive of skifield operator NZSki, says the pinch in staff accommodation peaked a couple of years ago. It’s eased a little thanks to more houses being built in new subdivisions – and the company having successfully pleaded with local people to make their spare rooms available. “The biggest challenge for our staff is that rents remain high despite more supply,” Anderson says.

But problems persist for tourism company Skyline Enterprises.

Maree Aoake is Skyline’s human resources boss. She says it’s an ongoing challenge to retain staff because of high rents and the cost of living, despite the large number of transient workers attracted to the resort. “Many of our transient workers may be keen to stay long term, but as immigration restrictions tighten up, especially in the hospitality and tourism industry, this is not easy to achieve.”

(Skyline plans to spend more than $150 million upgrading Queenstown’s prominent gondola ride. The company, which also has gondola operations in Rotorua, Singapore, Canada, and South Korea, employs 532 people in Queenstown.)

Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult says he's got unfinished business. Photo: David Williams

Newsroom meets Boult at a cafe in Christchurch’s PwC building. One company based there is Partners Finance & Lease – of which the Queenstown mayor is a director. (He resigned from Real Journeys last November, but is chairman of its parent company Wayfare Group.)

Boult orders coffee. He eats after the interview’s over.

The 67-year-old says it’s an enormous commitment to be mayor, you never get a day off, and you’re the subject of intense public scrutiny. “But if you believe you’re doing the right job and you’re part-way through it, then you have an obligation to carry it through, to see things get done, which I wish to do.”

First and foremost he wants to see through the visitor levy – for the Government to pass legislation allowing the council, like Stewart Island, to be able to set its own regional tax, to pay for infrastructure the council itself, and its ratepayers, can’t afford.

Boult says the council spent time with various Government departments on a different funding model, and settled on an accommodation-based levy. The Government said it had to be sure of community support so Boult offered to take it to a referendum. More than 81 percent of the 9920 votes (or 42 percent of registered voters) supported the move.

“Job done,” Boult says, after which the Government said it would not work through the two-year process of putting in place legislation.

Was it a promise? “There’s no promise involved here – but it is a strong intent to do the job.”

That intent comes from several ministers, and New Zealand First is supportive, he says. (Newsroom contacted the offices of Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta but didn’t get a response. Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker, of the National Party, whose electorate includes Queenstown, is presumably taking an interest, but he didn’t respond either.)

Is he confident it will happen? “I’m very confident.”

Jim Boult on a commuter ferry service – “Yes, very much [in the next term].”

His council’s successes include putting the first six families into an affordable housing scheme called Secure Home. Purchasers get 100-year leases on land owned in perpetuity by the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust.

There’s been progress with public transport. (“Every time I look at one of those buses I think there’s 10 or 15 cars that aren’t on the roads.”) But he has a big wishlist for next term, should he be re-elected. He wants more dedicated services to downtown from Lake Hayes Estate and Shotover Country, priority for buses between Frankton and the central town, services between Cromwell and Queenstown, and public transport for Wanaka. The other plan is for a commuter ferry service.

Big-ticket items include a pricey arterial bypass route, part of negotiations with the Transport Agency – Boult: “We’ve got to find another funding model that doesn’t impact our region”. There’s also a joint venture with Ngāi Tahu Property to redevelop a prominent central area along Stanley St – including the old primary school and high school sites. The plan is for a new council building, a performing and visual arts centre, library, and other community buildings.

“Council are now in five different buildings around town, which is crazy,” Boult says. The council’s main office has to be replaced because the planned arterial bypass will go through it. “Plus it’s a crappy old building,” he adds.

Those grand ambitions – part of a $1 billion infrastructure wishlist – largely rely on a visitor levy.

Lewers, the Frankton Community Association chairman, says the council’s large infrastructure programme is starting to be delivered. Two large sewer pipes are being installed, he says, a large stormwater pipe is going in, Arrowtown’s getting a wastewater system upgrade, and two new water reservoirs will be built.

“The only fear now that we have,” Lewers says, “is if money gets tight because of an economic slowdown, that momentum’s lost.”

Election ready for take-off

Airport issues seem likely to be front and centre at the upcoming election.

In Queenstown, the airport corporation – three-quarters owned by the council – sparked an uproar by stating it wanted to double the aerodrome’s capacity by 2045, by extending its noise boundaries. It later backed down, in favour of a plan to expand Wanaka Airport, which has also drawn community ire. (Air New Zealand’s subsidiary Eagle Air last flew to Wanaka in 2013.)

As a former boss of Christchurch International Airport, Boult is comfortable talking aviation. But his political radar isn’t infallible. Newsroom spoke to the Queenstown mayor just days before a council meeting at which the council considered the airport corporation’s annual statement of intent.

Boult told Newsroom that the statement “kind of looks to us like it’s heading in the right direction”. But councillors only narrowly voted to receive the document – and did so on the condition that the corporation amend it and pay better attention to the council’s concerns.

Extending the noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport was a step too far, Boult said. “The airport have taken that on board, and I expect a more conservative approach to be taken from them in the future.”

On the possible re-introduction of domestic flights to Wanaka, he says there area 400,000 passenger movements at Queenstown Airport which is essentially people trying to get to and from Wanaka. So it’s logical Wanaka provides that.

“Despite some criticism there is a very strong groundswell in Wanaka that’s keen to have that. I get lots of phone calls and messages to tell me that.”

Possible achilles heel

Frankton Community Association’s Lewers might give Boult’s council a pass mark in the current term of office but he spies an achilles heel. “The only way that someone’s going to unseat him is if the airport expansion in Wanaka and here [in Queenstown] becomes a real issue – as in, the angst gets a lot higher than what it is. Some of it’s bubbling away in some sectors.”

He laughs. “You never know how politics can go if it really got a roll on.”

Lewers says the council isn’t listening hard enough to community groups like his. When the airport corporation’s plan to extend the noise boundaries was made public, councillors were quiet about it, he says. “They could have front-footed the issue a little bit more.”

Last month, members of a Kingston community group protested a major subdivision because access was planned down the town’s main street. And earlier this month, Hawea Community Association chairwoman April McKenzie said the community had lost confidence in the council because of a lack of consultation about a fast-tracked plan to build 400 houses at Hawea, near Wanaka. There’s also disquiet about the prospect of jets flying into Wanaka.

Boult told Newsroom he’s been criticised for driving decisions too hard. “I think that’s what I was elected for.”

The incumbent usually has an advantage in a mayoral race. How tight it is can depend on the prominence of the opponents. But a mayor also needs the confidence of their community. Perhaps this can-do council would do well to hit the flaps, and check if the community is flying in the same direction. Otherwise there could be turbulence ahead.

* This story has been updated to add that Boult is chairman of Wayfare Group, Real Journeys’ parent company, and to clarify that the council received, not accepted, the statement of intent from Queenstown Airport Corporation.

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