West Coasters ask – where’s our $24m?

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Pressure is mounting on the government to release $24 million earmarked for the hurting tourism town of Franz Josef.

Franz Josef

Photo: 123RF

Six months since it approved a flood protection project, the region’s mayor is furious with the government’s lack of follow-up action.

The last two years have seen major storms and landslides affect Franz Josef followed by a dearth of international tourism from Covid-19 travel bans.

Despite more New Zealanders touring the West Coast since then, Bella Vista motel owner Adam Haugh said there had been about an 85 percent drop in visitors compared to last summer – and while other tourist towns are getting by with weekend travellers and day-trippers, Franz Josef is too isolated for that.

“Unlike other parts of New Zealand we haven’t seen weekend or short-trippers coming over. We haven’t had the business numbers to keep us sustained at this time. Many businesses here will cease to trade if there isn’t a desire to keep them open from central government,” he said.

Specifically, residents want to hear if a $24 million plan to upgrade the town’s stopbanks and build a new bridge over the Waiho River will go ahead.

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The provincial growth fund project was proposed by the West Coast Regional Council and given the green light six months ago by the government.

Westland District Mayor Bruce Smith said it would guarantee “bums in beds” and fill the restaurants and cafes.

Westland mayor Bruce Smith

Bruce Smith Photo: RNZ / Katie Todd

But he said it had stalled, with government advising in December it was reviewing its shovel-ready projects.

“It’s been through the ropes. It’s been approved. All regional council require is the funding to be released so they can award the contracts. We’ve got machinery sitting down there that’s been empty since September of last year, and we’ve got no one in motels.

“We’ve got restaurants being mothballed and closed down. Our fire brigade down there has dropped from 11 members to four and is almost at the point where it can’t function. It’s quite a serious situation.”

Smith suspected the government was eyeing up a bigger flood protection project long term, and thought it may want to save the money for that rather than an interim measure.

He said that could involve buying properties south of the Waiho River, flooding them, and relocating the State Highway, with a price tag over more than $100m.

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He didn’t think it made sense, when the original plan has been rigourously assessed and “planned to death”.

“I’ve got so many reports in my office in relation to Franz Josef, sitting up against the wall, that if we have the earthquake I’ll be killed by the reports.”

National List MP Maureen Pugh, who’s based in West Coast-Tasman, was happy to weigh in.

“I just feel it’s so disingenuous to dangle a carrot in front of a whole community and when it comes to the 11th hour, it’s just taken away,” she said.

“This is a cruel blow to that community and I hope the government pulls its finger and lets that money go, so some real work can be done in the town.”

Smith said the council has been seeking updates on the project every day.

In the meantime, Glacier Country Tourism Group co-chair Richard Benton said tourism operators were trying to focus on the positives of the “void” of international tourism.

They encouraged New Zealanders to do likewise.

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“Operators have now got time to talk and really share the beauty of the glacier region. There’s rainforests, incredible wildlife activities and walks. All that stuff that takes your breath away,” he said.

“It’s a great time to see the region – being quieter gives a better experience.”

RNZ has contacted West Coast Tasman MP Damien O’Connor for comment.

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