City airport funding bid aims high

SOARING SUPPORT: Local government, business and economic sector representatives rally behind the $3.5m funding bid for the Mount Gambier Airport upgrade. Picture: SANDRA MORELLO
SOARING SUPPORT: Local government, business and economic sector representatives rally behind the $3.5m funding bid for the Mount Gambier Airport upgrade. Picture: SANDRA MORELLO

THE proposed $9.2 Mount Gambier Airport upgrade is yet to be secured with the Federal Government still weighing up funding the strategic infrastructure project.

With the project yet to get off the ground, regional civic leaders, business delegates and tourism advocates have made an 11th hour appeal to a Coalition powerbroker to support the project.

Assistant minister to the deputy prime minister Keith Pitt made a flying visit to the Blue Lake city on Tuesday to discuss the $3.5m federal funding bid with stakeholders.

Despite an “unprecedented” sign of unity across the room, Mr Pitt cautioned the Building Better Regions Fund was highly competitive.

It is understood hundreds of applications have been lodged across Australia for the $209m fund and a decision on the application could be made “over the coming week”.

Grant District Council’s application is among the largest funding bids lodged across the nation.

Regional Development Minister John McVeigh is also planning a visit to Mount Gambier next week with the Mount Gambier Airport upgrade also on his radar.

Member for Barker Tony Pasin – who secured Mr Pitt’s visit to the region – said the airport upgrade was of critical importance to the region, but conceded landing the funds would be difficult.

“It will be a Herculean achievement if we land it,” Mr Pasin said at the meeting.

“We have done everything we can, we have taken the feedback on board … the rest is now in the competitive washing machine and we will see what pops out the other side.”

Given the size of the application, Mr Pasin revealed the project was competing with some of the largest regional centres in Australia.

Mr Pitt told stakeholders the airport application was “very strong”.

“We look at applications that do have strong community support and do meet the criteria,” Mr Pitt said.

“Tony Pasin has done a very good job in bending all of our ears.”

Grant District Mayor Richard Sage said his council’s plan was to “future-proof” the airport and attract larger planes and freight opportunities.

Mount Gambier Mayor Andrew Lee threw his full support behind the project given the council’s focus to grow the city’s tourism market.

He said his council had pledged $500,000 towards the project even though the asset was outside its boundary.

“We see this as a significant project for the region,” Mr Lee said.

Adding to the debate, Mr Pasin said it was “unprecedented” in the region for a council to pour significant money into a project that it did not control.

Wattle Range Mayor Peter Gandolfi – who has been appointed chair of Limestone Coast Regional Development Australia (RDA) – said an expanded airport would attract higher end tourists to the

He said this would encourage the development of tourism infrastructure in the region, including in Wattle Range.

“We are in a transport blackspot in terms of infrastructure,” Mr Gandolfi said.

“We have no rail here and our airport would benefit from an upgrade.”

Tourism Mount Gambier chair Kent Comley said the region was a key gateway that needed strong aviation passenger services.

“The mix of tourists is changing,” Mr Comley said.

“We are the most visited region by international visitors and seeing a big growth in the Chinese market.”

He said there was particular growth in these “high-yield” passengers.

“We have met with Chinese wholesalers who say they want to bring in groups on large planes and carry 35kg of luggage,” the business operator said.

He said larger aircraft could not land currently at Mount Gambier Airport.

“That is looking to the future, we cannot say it will happen tomorrow, but we cannot actually open ourselves to that market at the moment,” he said.

Speaking to The Border Watch after the meeting, Mr Sage said council was hopeful its funding application would be successful.

“The community has rallied behind us, the application is solid and we have listened to the feedback and we have incorporated what the leaders of the community were looking for,” he said.

“The diversity of people who came along to the meeting demonstrates the strength of the application.”