Ignite Wanaka "bad for business, bad for the community" - Kat West
Kat West is an architect and businesswomen who has lived in Wanaka since 1998. In this article she documents her concerns that the Chamber of Commerce (Ignite Wanaka) has taken a position on airport expansion that fails to represent the views of the local business community. She claims an article published by Ignite Wanaka board member Celia Crosbie is inaccurate and represents a significant problem in terms of the Chamber's role in the community. The Chamber receives support funding from the Queenstown Lakes District Council.
I was privileged to attend one of the airport impact assessment consultation focus groups in Wanaka last week, and I’ve been surprised by claims that the meeting was ugly. It was far from it.
There were ten other people in the meeting. Nine of those do not support the claims - and I am one of those nine. There was tension and emotion, but not bullying or scoffing, and definitely the major frustrations were directed at the process, not Celia personally. One of the really positive things that I took away from the meeting was that there were many other business people also very concerned about uninhibited growth and the airport’s potential contribution to this.
As a business person, I am really concerned that Ignite Wanaka - claiming to be the voice of business in Wanaka - has deliberately tried to skew the conversation. I therefore want to share what I know.
An “ugly” community meeting
In case you missed it, here’s what happened. Warning - this is a long article, as I’ve had to repeat some of the background as you may not have seen it …
Even though I thoroughly disagree with the tone of Ignite Wanaka’s blog post, you need to read it for balance and to understand my concerns. On Thursday 20th February, Ignite Wanaka published an “exclusive” blog post by board member Celia Crosbie entitled “Wanaka Airport: Respecting each other’s opinions”. Much of it is describing the process in the meeting which is basically factual. I did agree with her point that "no matter what your views are - now is the time to have your say", which is why I am standing up about misinformation on the discussion now. However, Celia also talked about leaving the Wanaka Airport impact assessments focus group session run by MartinJenkins “feeling deflated and a bit battered and bruised from the obvious anger and negativity that was in the room.” She continued: “I was accused of being “pro-growth” by some participants and, at times, my contributions were scoffed at.” and “I felt that the professional facilitators did a great job of listening to all viewpoints. I can’t really say the same about some participants throughout this process.” This is fairly emotive language.
Celia described the airport debate as “one of the ugliest I’ve seen in my time in Wanaka,” and ironically then went on to talk of the need for respect, kindness and grace. Celia expressed her hope that the 2018 visioning workshops would happen: “Wanaka Airport becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral airport while being an innovator in the aviation tech space, balanced with providing limited domestic flights – eventually falls out of QAC’s masterplan", which is an interesting comment.
I have to say, as someone who sat in the same room as Celia that day, I was surprised to read her blog and also to see the extent of the national news coverage within 24 hours.
When “ugly” turns out not to be ugly at all
Fast forward to Thursday this week - I was very happy to see a letter in the Wanaka Sun from local businessman and Ignite Wanaka member Roger Gardiner. Unlike some of the national papers, letters to the editor in the Wanaka Sun are not online individually. However, you can see it on their e-reader here - it’s on page 13 (Crux - we have also reproduced a copy of the letter below). Here’s the main part of what Roger said:
“I attended the meeting, representing the Wanaka CBD Property Owner Group, and I am also a member of the Chamber of Commerce. I have since contacted nine of the 10 meeting attendees. The attendees represented wide and varied sector groups. It did not include representation by the Wanaka Stakeholders Group. The overwhelming consensus was that Celia’s commentary grossly misrepresented how the meeting was conducted and the behaviour of those present.” (emphasis added by me).
He went on to say: “Attendees described the meeting as respectful and cordial. It was a good exchange of viewpoints. There were a range of views and opinions expressed. Everyone was given the opportunity to speak. There was no scoffing, nor the body language issues Celia referred to.” He commented that had there been problems, the professional facilitators would have intervened.
“If Celia was unable to find support for her viewpoint, it is ridiculous to cry foul and claim she felt battered and bruised. Her written summation of the mood of the meeting was not supported by any other attendee. I do not know why she would write this. Celia’s reportage has received wide media coverage and misrepresentation. This is of concern, particularly because she has a journalism and public relations background.” (my emphasis again)
“Her unsubstantiated coverage has not helped encourage a balanced and unemotional community debate. She has claimed an emotional component which this debate does not need.” He finished by saying that two members who attended offered to meet with Celia to discuss this, but she said she was unable to. She has since said “I stand by what I said in my blog” and claimed her feelings as her own, not those of Ignite Wanaka.
I wholeheartedly agree with Roger’s summary. Having been present at the focus group with Celia I have first-hand knowledge of all of this.
Why Ignite Wanaka’s approach is bad for business - and bad for the community
Here’s what troubles me from this exchange.
An Ignite Wanaka board member with a journalist and PR background has posted on the official Ignite Wanaka blog and obtained national media attention, providing a view of what happened with no balance in the coverage. They described the conversation about the airport as very “ugly” and implying that someone with pro-growth, pro-jet airport views could not safely express their views. It turns out that this is an extremely skewed version of what happened - and nobody else in the room supports it (thanks Roger for contacting the other attendees). Celia knows what she is doing - in fact, communication is her livelihood and she is very, very good at it. Her blog post was expertly written and aimed at creating an impression of a very uncomfortable situation where people’s views were being oppressed - a situation which didn’t exist. She was there in her capacity as a board member of Ignite Wanaka and published it on their official blog. So to claim that this blog post represents her “feelings” and are therefore somehow ringfenced as personal is totally disingenuous and misleading.
In addition, Celia was meant to be representing Ignite Wanaka members of which I understand there are roughly 250. As it is endorsed by the board, this blog can only be interpreted as a totally conscious communication from Ignite Wanaka, and it is aimed at taking a shot - and somehow it turned into a big, national media coverage shot - at those opposing the jet airport. Worse still, it is not aimed at the views of those opposing the airport, but at the people expressing those views - this is totally personal. It also chimes in with the Mayor’s and others’ numerous unsubstantiated claims of bullying, scaremongering and “borderline” defamation by the anti-jet crowd. This appears to me to be a coordinated campaign, aimed at minimising the credibility of those with differing views. It seems to me that Celia is finding it more and more difficult to find arguments to support her position, so is reduced to personal comments and blaming “others”. Ironic much?
Ignite Wanaka says its role is to represent the business community in Wanaka as best they can. I have close friends who are Ignite Wanaka members. Talking to other business owners in Wanaka, there doesn’t appear to be any mandate given by members of Ignite Wanaka for the board to be strongly in favour of any one side of this debate. I have been told that last time there was any measurement of where members stood, the results were roughly 50/50, and that most wanted more information before deciding. I appreciate that there was only limited notification of the focus group meetings, so there was very little time (just a matter of days) to re-survey members, but that should mean that you use the most recent survey as your starting point. Surely you’d need a solid majority in favour of being pro-jet before supporting that view so strongly on behalf of your membership.
In its official communication about its 2020 strategy, where “the airport” was announced as one of its top five priorities for 2020, Ignite Wanaka Chair, Bridget Legnavsky was quoted as saying: “Ignite will continue to work closely with the stakeholders to ensure quality and factual information is shared and that businesses are prepared for any changes that may arise”. (I’ve added emphasis). I would suggest that the events I am talking about here - only three weeks later - let the side down. Regardless of which “side” you are on, misleading people in the way Celia’s blog does is unacceptable, particularly as an official communication from Ignite Wanaka.
It is telling that the board of Ignite Wanaka is comfortable with this. I know that chair works for Wayfare Group, so Jim Boult is effectively her ultimate boss in that organisation, as well as being the Mayor. The Executive Officer of Ignite was up until mid last year QAC’s spokesperson in Wanaka. Councillor Calum McLeod, deputy Mayor, is also a board member of Ignite, and he was one of those quoting and sharing Celia’s blog in social media. There may be other connections between board members and the pro-jet pro-growth “side”. But as board members they should at the very least accurately represent the views of their membership. They should certainly not be connected with fake news about the airport issue. This is disappointing and cheapens the debate. In fact it could be said to make it “ugly”.
We simply have to figure out how to make our economy and airport work without it causing rampant additional growth, and there was lots of discussion on how this might be possible at this meeting. Our community has a wealth of motivated people who are trying to contribute positively to this discussion. Celia's blog has not helped this.
The Upper Clutha community should reject sensationalism, obfuscation, fake news and divisive communications. As a professional body, Ignite Wanaka should be leading by example, and presumably, it should reflect the sentiment of the business community. Our community - including the business community - deserves much better.