OPINION: Airport upgrade will boost local economy

TWO questions loom large following this week’s Federal Government $3.5m contribution to provide major upgrading of the Mount Gambier Airport.

Firstly, what will be the reaction from Regional Express Airline (Rex) and will the upgrade result in securing another airline to the city?

It has been well documented that Rex was aggressively opposed to Grant District Council’s attempts to seek funding for improvements to the airport which will mean an increase in the length of the runway, heightening hopes it will bring in larger aircraft and maybe another carrier.

Rex went to the extraordinary length of opposing Grant’s airport move at a Senate inquiry.

Then, following debate over passenger tax which Rex claims was the reason for decreasing passenger numbers Rex dropped several of its Mount Gambier routes.

Industry sources claim that was also because Rex was having difficulty finding pilots and crew to service some of the Mount Gambier routes to Adelaide and Melbourne.

None-the-less, the airline has copped plenty of criticism over the past few years, both for its high cost of travel and for its lack of consistency where it was never certain whether passengers were going to get on a flight at their preferred time.

Some flights were cancelled at a moment’s notice leaving passengers stranded either overnight or having to make alternative travel arrangements to get to their destinations.

In some cases it meant they missed connecting international flights, at either extra cost, or ruined a family’s holiday.

Whether Rex will up the ante further by reacting to Mount Gambier’s funding victory is yet to be seen, however, the most important factor now is whether this will attract interest from a larger carrier.

Much has been said about what a larger or a second carrier might do to the city’s economy.

This includes tourism, chartered aircraft and more opportunities for freight, but also it will help promote the city further as a convention destination.

One of the first beneficiaries is likely to be Generations In Jazz (GIJ) which attracts more than 5000 school children to compete at the event each year but most come from South Australia and Victoria so imagine if the event could tap into the major populated states of NSW and Queensland?

That has been the aim of GIJ organisers for more than a decade but because the event has to be held over a weekend to ensure that student’s normal school work is not affected by being able to return by Sunday night ready for school Monday morning, it means most attendance is limited by how far schools can travel by bus in a day.

Trying to arrange air travel through connecting flights from Queensland to Mount Gambier is virtually impossible, but with bigger aircraft, direct chartered flights might change that and ensure the growth of the event.

By the way, anyone who has the view that it will be poached by Victoria can forget it.

The event is here to stay, simply because of the unusual tent-like atmosphere it provides, the huge number of volunteers needed to make it work, which would be unlikely to happen in Melbourne, and that James Morrison, now one of the driving forces behind the event, has made Mount Gambier his home.

So the event is going nowhere and now has a chance to grow further.

Member for Mount Gambier Tony Pasin and Grant council, through mayor Richard Sage deserve a pat on the back for brining this to a positive conclusion.

Both have been resolute in their belief the city could secure the funding to go with the state government, Grant and Mount Gambier City Council’s contribution, even though there have been setbacks along the way.

The entire project will cost $9.2m with city council promising $500,000, state government $4m and Grant $1.1m.

The upgrade may be the key point which cuts the distance between Mount Gambier and metropolitan cities and drives our economy to a new level and if that does happen then all three tiers of government can take a bow for a job well done.

Footnote: For those who wish to contact the mayor or councillors to express their views on the indoor sports centre and request a ratepayer’s poll, email city@mountgambier.sa.gov.au and address your message for the attention of Mayor Andrew Lee.