Weekly column by Kāpiti mayor K Gurunathan.
Last Friday, I met the new owners of Kapiti Coast Airport for the first time. But the story I heard is an old one.
Since 1995, when the National Party Government, as part of its neoliberal ideology, sold off public assets like regional airports, every new owner of the airport would shed crocodile tears about the airport being unsustainable.
They fleeced off slithers of the then 131 hectare block and sold them. That was the beginning of a death by a thousand cuts. One observer deemed it akin to a Ponzi scheme.
Murray Cole originally bought it from the Crown for a mere $1.6 million then sold it in 2006 to Auckland developer Noel Robinson for almost $40m.
Sir Noel projected an amazing 30-year vision to the Kāpiti community of a thriving commercial hub creating thousands of new jobs with the returns supporting a bustling airport. There is no doubt he worked hard at this vision convincing Air New Zealand to operate out of Paraparaumu. He also successfully secured Plan Change 73 to enable development of a business park with proceeds to support the airport operations.
But Sir Noel too abandoned his vision. In 2012 he sold a majority share to the Todd Group. The sale was rumoured to be worth $100m.
The new owners again trotted out the mantra that the airport was not sustainable. They successfully pressed for changes to the original Plan Change 73 to increase the development potential of the business park covering activities that competed with the district's prime retail centre, Coastlands.
Unlike Sir Noel, the Todds had no interest in running an airport. Then, in November last year, the Todds sold the airport to property developers NZ PropCo. The price tag estimated to be close to $150m.
Effectively between 1995 to 2019 the value of the airport block had spiralled from $1.6m to $150m. What was even more telling was that this block of land was originally taken from Māori under the Public Works Act for defence purposes. In 1995 the original owners had contested the Crown's sale but failed, they contested it again in 2006 but the Environment Court ruled that the question of original ownership was not a matter for that court.
There are two serious moral breaches underpinning this airport story. Firstly, the systematic alienation of the land by the Crown which cheated the original Māori owners from their right to be offered back the land taken under the Public Works Act.
Secondly, Plan Change 73, secured by Sir Noel in 2009, was based on the valid argument that the commercial development of airport land was critical with the profits supporting the sustainability of the airport operations. That's why Sir Noel only leased the land and buildings to businesses.
The new owners NZ PropCo Ltd are advertising the sale of the different titles on the business park. Given the long historical association between the airport and the Kāpiti communities it should be no surprise to NZ PropCo that there will be significant community opposition to any attempt to undermine the viability of the airport or to close it.
The council has, in the recent past, backed the community, including the business community, to fight for the retention of viable air services out of Kāpiti. Given the ratepayer investment, and strong public sentiments, I see no reason to change that position.
I understand the new owners had paid huge, but unknown, sums of money for a suite of Todd Group properties across the country during the pre-Covid 19 economic situation. It's understandable that in the economics of the post-Covid 19 situation NZ PropCo will be looking at rationalising its property holdings.
However, the airport has always been accepted as a strategic district and regional asset. And must continue to be.
I'm hoping the new owners will keep this in perspective and, in my recent meeting with them, I have requested the owners to provide our communities with their vision of what plans they have for this strategic block of land.
I think it's only fair to give the new owners a chance to show they are not just carpetbaggers after a quick buck but people committed to contributing to the common good of Kāpiti. A common good that includes a place in the sun for 'our airport'.