Film studio for Wanaka caught in QLDC staff errors

by Isobel Ewing - Mar 03, 2021

A major film studio expected to bring up to 1200 jobs to Wanaka is caught up in a drama that’s resulted in resignations of senior Queenstown Lakes District Council staff and raised questions over its relationship with developers.

Crux can reveal that consent to build Silverlight Studios 7km east of Wanaka, right next to Wanaka airport, is being fast-tracked by the government as part of its COVID-19 economic recovery programme.

Shareholder of Silverlight Studios, Mike Wallis

The proposal, which has been signed off by environment minister David Parker and is awaiting consideration by an expert consenting panel, is for a film studio complex including location sets, post-production facilities and offices, a film school, a screening theatre and tourism facilities.

The shareholders of Silverlight Studios are Jonathan Harding, Mike Wallis and Ra Vincent, all of whom have ties to Weta Workshop and Sir Peter Jackson's film projects.

They have been involved in some of New Zealand’s biggest film productions, including the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, Ghost in a Shell and Jojo Rabbit.

The 322ha proposed site for the film studio is currently a farm comprising rolling hills with spectacular views of the Southern Alps, and also houses the high-end Corbridge Woolshed wedding venue.

It’s planned that the film complex would be built on the southern half of the site around an artificial lake, while the remainder of the property would be maintained as paddocks.

The proposal says the film studio would bring 300 jobs during the construction phase and 1200 during operation, and it’s widely seen as exactly what the region needs, Wanaka councillor Quentin Smith says.

“[Silverlight] represents a pretty substantial diversification opportunity for our economy, an opportunity to create well-paying jobs in our community that aren't tourism based,” Smith says.

The proposed site of the film studio currently houses the Corbridge Woolshed wedding venue

But taking the shine off the excitement of the new proposal is a developing battle between QLDC and part owner of Corbridge, entrepreneur and founder of Eftpos, Peter Marshall.

Corbridge Estate Ltd Partnership, of which Marshall is a director, submitted an application to council last year to rezone the land from “rural” to “rural visitor zone”, with the aim of developing a lavish 27-hole golf course, resort hotel and residential housing.

The request was declined on the basis that the land was not appropriate for these types of activities because the site is not “visually discrete” or “remote”. 

Wanaka councillor Quentin Smith is upset council process wasn't followed.

This zoning decision was scheduled for release by council on March 18, but instead it was wrongly sent to a planner representing Silverlight Studios on February 2.

The timing meant that Marshall’s negotiating power with several parties was undermined, resulting in a loss worth millions, he says.

“This is the final straw for me, from a commercial perspective it gutted us,” Marshall says. 

Crux understands that subsequently, the QLDC planner responsible for the error, Ian Bayliss, as well as several other staff have resigned.

QLDC can’t confirm or deny Bayliss’ departure or any other staff, saying they do not comment on staff matters.

In a press release, QLDC General Manager Planning and Development Tony Avery said “the transgression from the normal process was a regrettable error that would not be repeated.”

Some councillors are alarmed and upset by the release of the commercially sensitive information, and say they haven’t been told the reason it was done.

Councillor Niki Gladding says the incident reveals a potentially wider problem in QLDC’s relationship with developers.

“What is our relationship with developers? This points to ‘what systems have we got in place to make sure the relationship remains appropriate.”

“It seems a line might’ve been crossed.”

Gladding emphasises that council must not get involved in taking sides when it comes to commercial development.

Councillor Smith says he was upset by the “undermining of process and trust in that process.”

“I think it was really unhelpful and really damaging, even if it was done without malintent.”

Tony Avery, QLDC GM Planning and Development, left, and Ian Bayliss, QLDC Planning Policy Manager

Councillors were only told about the wrongly-released information nine days later.

Marshall says the incident raises questions over the impartiality of deputy mayor Calum MacLeod, who supported his planned golf resort, while also pushing for the film studio to go ahead, and also sat as a commissioner on the Proposed District Plan panel charged with determining the land’s future use.

“He should not have stayed on that hearing panel,” Marshall says.

“He should have advised the chair of his conflict and he should have recused himself.”

Crux has approached MacLeod for comment.

The proposed 322ha site of Silverlight Studios, 7km east of Wanaka



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