Today’s Wairarapa Times-Age confirms that the people of Masterton will pay twice for an airport that no airline wants to use.
As taxpayers, they will pick up a share of the $10 million government tab for the Hood Aerodrome upgrading announced amid much fanfare last week by Finance Minister Grant Robertson.
But they’ll be hit as ratepayers too, because the Times-Age reveals that the other $7 million for the project will come from Masterton District Council. The source of this additional funding was mysteriously unidentified in last week’s announcement but has now been confirmed by MDC chief executive Kath Ross.
According to Ross, the project will “transform Hood from a community airfield, supporting recreational pilots and a select group of commercial operators, to a centre for cutting-edge commercial activity, manufacturing and training, alongside existing and new tourism attractions and businesses.
“This work will open the door to some exciting opportunities for future business development.”
This is a statement heavy on pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking and empty PR clichés (“cutting-edge”, “exciting opportunities”). Not one of the cheerleaders for the project – Ross, Robertson, Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson and local MPs Ron Mark and Kieran McAnulty – has identified a single new user of the upgraded aerodrome.
On the contrary, the one regional airline named as being potentially “interested” in flying out of Hood has cast fresh doubt on the viability of the plan. The Times-Age reports that Doug Emeny, general manager of Air Chathams, said the airline had to be persuaded to submit a business case to the council last year.
“You know it’s getting hard when they come to you and say, ‘Can you please put an application in?’
“We thought about it and decided ‘Yes, we will’. But in all honesty, we limped into it. We weren’t overly impressed with the research that had gone on into what service there would be.”
It’s hard to imagine more damning words from the man running an airline identified as a key prospective user. In fact I'd suggest that on the basis of what we know so far, the project looks a complete dog.
Masterton District Council’s media statement on the Hood upgrade reinforces the impression that the government and the council are taking a massive punt. There’s more hollow PR blah-blah from both Patterson (“The funding for Hood Aerodrome will enable us to transform this treasured asset into a modern, functional airport with increased capacity over the longer-term”) and Ross (“We have a dedicated team that have worked hard over a significant period to fine-tune the future focus for Hood Aerodrome”), but not a single hard fact – and no mention anywhere of a business case to support spending $17 million at a time of enormous pressure on government and council finances.
Astonishingly, the council’s media statement last week avoided any mention of the millions that Masterton ratepayers will contribute to this potential white elephant. So much for transparency.
When the Hood announcement came out of the blue, I wondered whether I had missed something. I couldn’t believe the government and council could so airily commit $17 million to a project with no assured benefits other than the creation of 53 short-term construction jobs. In the absence of any compelling case for the upgrade, we’re left with no other conclusion than that it’s a brazen vote-buying exercise.