No amount of fairy dust can rescue QLDC’s new ivory tower HQ

by Peter Newport - Sep 01, 2023


There were some remarkable scenes and words at yesterday’s (August 31) full Queenstown Lakes District Council meeting.

Like lines from a Monty Python sketch councillors kept asking quite reasonable, even blunt, questions around Project Manawa – QLDC’s code name for a flash new CBD headquarters that is more Las Vegas than post-Covid Queenstown. The cost is officially unknown - but it looks like hundreds of millions of dollars.

The comedy was in chief executive Mike Theelen’s answers to these reasonable questions, asked not only by elected councillors but also ratepayers who had made submissions in the meeting’s public forum. The questions were mainly centred on whether any new council HQ should be in the messed-up CBD with no parking and chronic Frankton Road congestion or out towards Frankton where the largest group of staff now live.

Here's Mr Theelen’s reply:

“We’re not making a decision on whether we’re going to Frankton or not in this process.

“Council has established a position, and it has established that formally, that it prefers a position in the town centre.”

We’ve not seen Mr Theelen get this assertive before - he’s usually very measured and does not give the outward appearance of pushing any particular point of view. But his stewardship, or lack of it, over the Lakeview fiasco has changed everything. His sole charge “dream” project has so far cost ratepayers more than $100 million with not one cent from the developers actually in the QLDC’s bank account.

For the real estate agents and others who can’t wait for Lakeview we should make it clear there’s potentially nothing wrong with Lakeview except it should not be funded by the ratepayers and should include a healthy amount of affordable worker accommodation. And the council should have sold the required land for $42 million instead of gambling on theoretical and speculative future profit shares.

Mr Theelen and his ratepayer funded council comms/PR machine are so used to getting their own way, and so adept at bamboozling both councillors and ratepayers with their slick 'management by stealth' techniques that it was perhaps not surprising to see him change his tone yesterday over Project Manawa.

The Project Manawa timeline as published today on the QLDC website - according to this work should already have started.

All the groundwork has been prepared for years. The quiet partnership deals behind closed doors. The preparation of glossy concept documents. The preparation and research of complex land swaps. The confidential talks with partners to get a performing arts centre knitted into the Project Manawa fabric along with a new library.

Mr Theelen even enjoyed the benefit of having the mayor fully on board for yesterday’s council meetings. Mr Lewers chimed in to help Mr Theelen who was clearly struggling to get his 'the council has a position' argument across.

The mayor told councillors he could “remember as if it was yesterday” the community being canvassed about a new council HQ during the creation of the 2018 to 2028 Ten Year Plan, when some money (around $50 million) was first put aside for the project.

Can any of us remember “as if it was yesterday” being consulted about Project Manawa?

Grand and ambitious - but can we afford it and do ratepayers actually support this new council HQ?

We are sorry Mr Theelen, but the game is up. It must have seemed, in the words of Baldrick from Blackadder, “a cunning plan”. Have a quiet conversation, then another, then another – and suddenly those “conversations” become “consultation” and ratepayer tacit approval for hundreds of millions of dollars of questionable spend at a time when the Government and other councils are cutting billions of dollars of costs and cutting staff numbers by the thousands.

So we’ll leave you with the exact words of our very quiet mayor, who told media this week:

“It’s important for me to note, at this stage, the only decision on the table is to consider making options available for future councils to consolidate the land required for the Manawa development, and testing feedback on the use of the joint venture model to develop the future civic administration building through a new Council Controlled Organisation.

“Getting community feedback on these aspects will help shape the next steps and any decision to implement the project in the future will still require council decision making.”

None of the glossy pictures comes with a price tag - and do any of us remember being consulted?

Our advice: be afraid.

One of our readers on social media yesterday suggested that community sentiment may not quite match the mayor and chief executive's perspective.

“The council’s new building should be a Total Span shed down by the poo ponds. Why use prime real estate for them to lord it up and we pay?”

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