It could be the most significant project Whanganui has ever seen or it could be just a pipedream ... Simon Waters examines the bold plan to launch an inter-island ferry service from the city's port.

Neville Johnson began investigating an inter-island ferry service between Whanganui and Motueka long before there was any government money on offer.

Or any money at all, for that matter.

Since he began asking questions of his truckie mates and others in 2010, he estimates that, with his time included, he has invested almost as much as the $500,000 the Government has stumped up through its Accelerate 25 regional development programme for a port revitalisation study.


That study has produced a master plan - a blueprint for the Whanganui port rejuvenation - following consultation by Whanganui District Council appointed consultants with commercial, recreational and iwi interests.

But Midwest Ferries, the result of Mr Johnson's investigations into an inter-island passenger and freight service, is NOT included in that plan.

While he has produced drawings, released details of his concept and cited figures, what council has been waiting for is a professional business plan and feasibility study.

Without a sound proposal, it was not possible to produce a master plan that included what mayor Hamish McDouall describes as a highly ambitious idea.

That said, nothing in stage one of the master plan excludes Midwest Ferries, and there has been much creative thinking go into keeping the door open. Nobody is too sure about the Midwest proposal, and none want to go down in history alongside our former city fathers who said 'No' to Massey University, or to a fabled offer by the Americans to build a port in the first place.

If it's a goer, a Whanganui-Motueka ferry service could provide the country with a much-needed back-up link - something the Kaikoura earthquake has given plenty cause to mull over - and help underpin a vibrant and viable port asset of which the city can be proud.

Midwest Ferries has now engaged its own consultant to provide the facts, figures and spreadsheets required, and Mr Johnson is banking on delivering a business plan by the end of May.

But professional services cost money and Mr Johnson, who runs Whanganui mortgage and insurance company Financial Progress, has no more to give - "That's where the money's come from to put into this. I can't do it full time."


Last month Midwest went public, offering shares - prematurely as it turned out - in the development company Midwest Ferries Ltd at a minimum of $200 per person or $1000 per business.

That landed Midwest in a spot of bother with the Financial Markets Authority as the company could not legally offer shares without a registered prospectus.

There is now an appeal for donations and, if the project goes ahead, Mr Johnson says donations can be converted into shares.

Midwest trustee Graham Adams is a firm supporter of the idea, saying: "If this was to go ahead, it would be the most significant economic development for Whanganui ever."

Others behind the project as trustees are retired Horizons regional councillor Rod Pearce and former Christchurch city councillor and now Motueka resident Gail Jewell.

They aim to raise $100,000 by the end of May to fund the study.

Mr Johnson believes he will raise the money, and says his sums and research suggest the ferry project is far more than a pie-in-the-sky dream.

He's confident he'll be on the first ferry sailing to leave Whanganui and jokes that they may even give him a free ticket. Either way he has a deadline - he has vowed to walk away by February 20, 2020, the day he turns 80 years of age.

Myles Fothergill is chairman of Whanganui and Partners - council's economic development wing - and has been a key behind-the-scenes player in the development of the Master Plan. He's also owner of Whanganui boat building firm QWest - employer to up to 80 workers - and which itself has a vital role to play in stage one of the Master Plan by re-locating to the Port. Future government investment relies upon there being viable business there.

He says Mr Johnson is a dreamer ... but he does not mean that badly.

"Is he dreaming? Yes. But every great idea that's spawned a great business has started as a dream," Mr Fothergill said.

"If he's not dreaming, then he probably didn't have his head in the right space to start with."

Mr Fothergill is a realist and wants to see a proper business plan and feasibility study done before Midwest Ferries can be catered for in the re-development of the port.

"On a national scale, wherever this project went ahead, it's massive. It definitely has got its challenges - to develop Whanganui port, to be able to cater for the ferries themselves, the surrounding infrastructure is huge.

"Neville's got his supporters; he's also got some knockers - but in my view it's an opportunity, it's a dream. If a business case supports it and it can be turned into reality then we should be behind it."

Mr Johnson is under no illusion about the many challenges ahead but he doesn't see anything that can't be worked through.

One of the biggest challenges is dredging the port basin and about 700 metres out to sea to a minimum depth of seven metres - something Mr Johnson says has been achieved before under then harbour master Euan Crawford.

The current depth of 2.5 metres won't be sufficient for the 150-metre long, 5.25 metre draft ferries he plans to lease or purchase from Greece.

He's already sourced an available dredge - the Kawatere - from a Westport business. "It's got the suction for doing the silt and the grab for doing the sand."

However, Mr Fothergill is cautious. "We've had vessels that require seven metres of depth in the past operating in and out of here but it's been tide sensitive not time sensitive, so they would come in on the full tide and leave on the full tide," he said.

"There's never been a service operated out of here that I know of that has been time sensitive."

Mr Fothergill also believes the need for a resource consent for entry into Motueka might see the project scuppered on environmental grounds.

Mr Johnson says he would be improving the food source for the godwits that land there from Russia and Alaska by stirring up the seabed floor.

"These are not issues for now - they will come up in resource consent," he said.

As far as making Midwest a viable venture, Mr Johnson believes the transport industry will both invest in and use the service, while targeting international tourists as passengers and offering them an alternative route through the country will provide the second main revenue stream.

He says he has potential investors interested, such as an oil company he approached for fuel prices and which expressed an interest in a 10 per cent shareholding.

"I suspect we'll attract the attention of government soon, too."

He estimates it could cost $60 million to launch the ferry service.

He would also like to see iwi with a 30 per cent stake. "I want to see iwi there - not just because they've got money, but it's a good thing for them where there's going to be educational and employment opportunities and training."

The port revitalisation can go ahead without Midwest Ferries, but Mr Fothergill says that during stage one and, to some extent, stage two of the Master Plan, the opportunity remains to accommodate the ferry proposal - and any other future business that might come along with the proper figures.

"The one thing I've been passionate about with the port is that we don't do anything that could restrict future opportunity."