Michael Barnett: City projects will bring benefits nationally

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Michael Barnett. Photo / Natalie Slade
Michael Barnett. Photo / Natalie Slade

In the 10 years Auckland has talked of building a national convention centre able to compete with Australian and Asian venues, we have lost, conservatively, $5 billion and thousands of new city- and New Zealand-wide jobs to our economy.

Not to mention the many other downstream benefits such as the boost to tourism, fostering commercial links and supporting innovation and knowledge transfer. Similarly, in the 12 years we took to start building the Waterview tunnels to complete the western ring route motorway system, we have lost a conservative $4.2 billion in GDP growth and countless employment and business opportunities the project's completion will bring.

The slow progress to complete this vital link also means we are failing to convert the benefits of the billions of dollars invested since 2000 in other parts of the system, especially along the western ring route.

If construction of both projects was operating at peak today, there would be around 2000 more jobs available, enough to mop up a big portion of Auckland's current 7.3 per cent unemployment rate.

My point is not so much the lost growth and jobs resulting from our slow progress to get these two projects moving into the fast lane, but to highlight what underlies this appalling situation.

Auckland may be the powerhouse of the economy, but if we are to achieve our potential to be the best city we can be to live, work and visit, we need a culture change that puts action at the centre of our DNA.

It is just not good enough that having agreed 10 years ago that New Zealand needs a national convention centre capable of hosting conferences averaging 3500 delegates, and being raised as a top priority at every growth forum Auckland has ever had, we are still in discussion.

Three years ago uncontested research confirmed the opportunities offered by a national convention centre. We could expect direct benefits of close to $400 million a year and additional benefits of $85 million in increased tourism spend. We were also informed that spending per conference attendee is $650 per night - double that of the average tourist.

While the research confirmed that we are an attractive destination with strong appeal for hosting larger international conventions and exhibitions, we are not currently competitive with Australian and Asian cities because we lack an appropriate scale facility.

As I have said previously, the SkyCity proposal to fund and build a purpose built national convention centre in central Auckland is a game changer. Issues over pokies and problem gambling have seriously muddied the very real need for a convention centre. No doubt there will be more debate on these concerns, when we hear back from the Auditor-General on the way the proposal has been managed.

What I am saying, however, is that for Auckland to move forward with clear action that puts our economy on a sustainable long-term growth path these concerns must be worked through in an informed and measured way.

As we have known for decades, the Waterview project completes a transport link that greatly improves access to the central city, Auckland Airport and opens up new investment opportunities in west Auckland.

A great effort was made by the business community to encourage successive governments to accelerate construction of key projects along the western ring route, including having a single hearing for consents required by multiple authorities. In 2004, the Waterview project was projected for completion by 2012, with research confirming a benefit to the economy of $838 million annually. This bonanza has never been questioned. Yet construction has just kicked off with completion now expected by 2017. The five years of needless lost momentum can never be recouped.

A completed western ring route and a national-scale convention centre are two huge signals of the progress of Auckland to become a modern international city with infrastructure of global scale. More important, these projects will showcase Auckland as an action-focused, inventive and innovative progressive city.

As the rest of the world looks with some alarm at Europe, investors with cash are turning to our dollar and stock market. With modern infrastructure, Auckland also becomes a more attractive destination for international events, visitors and new businesses.

Every new business brings employment and generates revenue for government - new jobs and productivity for all New Zealand.

That why we should be building Waterview and a national convention centre - and doing it now.


Michael Barnett is chief executive of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

- NZ Herald

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