Will­cox ex­plains fi­nal de­ci­sion on Chi­na­town

Whitsunday Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Sharon Small­wood

IS HE a hero or did he make the wrong call?

The com­mu­nity is di­vided on the Whit­sun­day Re­gional Coun­cil de­ci­sion not to al­low a fur­ther ex­ten­sion for Air­lie’s Chi­na­town – a de­ci­sion An­drew Will­cox in­flu­enced with his cast­ing vote.

The Deputy Mayor, who’s presided over all coun­cil meet­ings about the de­vel­op­ment due to Mayor Jen­nifer Whit­ney’s “per­ceived” con­flict of in­ter­est, said peo­ple needed to “stay fo- cused on the fact I haven’t let the side down here”.

“I wasn’t in breach of the con­tract, coun­cil wasn’t in breach of the con­tract, the de­vel­oper was. And if he’d stuck to the terms of the con­tract we wouldn’t be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion – it’s re­ally that sim­ple,” he said.

The set­tle­ment of the land at Water­son Way has been on­go­ing since mid-2015.

At a meet­ing in Bowen on Jan­uary 27, coun­cil­lors ex­pressed their frus­tra­tions over the time taken to date, but said for the sake of a po­ten­tial $300 mil­lion over­all in­vest­ment they were pre­pared to give it an­other week.

All coun­cil­lors were then emailed by WCI rep­re­sen­ta­tive Peter “Ray­mond” Wang, ask­ing for a fur­ther ex­ten­sion un­til Fe­bru­ary 17. Mr Wang cited dif­fi­culty do­ing busi­ness dur­ing Chi­nese New Year and also raised his long-run­ning strug­gle over coun­cil’s re­quire­ment for a bank guar­an­tee – not stan­dard prac­tice with the sale of coun­cil land and dif­fi­cult for his in­vestors to un­der­stand.

At a spe­cial meet­ing called for Fe­bru­ary 3, three coun­cil­lors – John Collins, John Atkin­son and Jan Clifford, were pre­pared to wait two more weeks, but Cr Will­cox said enough was enough and used his cast­ing vote to break the 3-3 dead­lock. The fall­out was im­me­di­ate, with for­mer State Deputy Premier Jim El­der, call­ing it “one of the dumb­est de­ci­sions I’ve ever seen from a coun­cil”.

Mr El­der, who has in the past fa­cil­i­tated on be­half of Mr Wang in his role with Whit­sun­days Mar­ket­ing and De­vel­op­ment Lim­ited as both a for­mer chair­man and now di­rec­tor, said the sad­dest thing about the de­ci­sion was “growth and jobs gone”. “Th­ese types of projects are sought af­ter up and down the Queens­land coast and Mackay Coun­cil have al­ready shown in­ter­est,” he said.

“How many $300 mil­lion de­vel­op­ments come along that you can af­ford to treat with con­tempt?

“This de­vel­op­ment has of course been more chal­leng­ing be­cause it’s an over­seas de­vel­oper – Chi­nese in this in­stance (and) there are sig­nif­i­cant cul­tural is­sues to man­age, lan­guage bar­ri­ers to deal with (and) mis­un­der­stand­ings that re­sult.

“But th­ese coun­cil­lors were elected to help fa­cil­i­tate not ob­struct, to cre­ate em­ploy­ment not sti­fle it, build op­por­tu­nity not tear it down. Yes it’s tough but make it hap­pen oth­er­wise just get out of the road.”

This week Cr Will­cox was quick to re­spond say­ing he had grave con­cerns, “when if, af­ter seven months you can’t come up with $3.5 mil­lion, how are you go­ing to fund a $300 mil­lion de­vel­op­ment?”

“On a num­ber line, those num­bers are a fair bit apart – so is the $300 mil­lion there? Is it real? Was it ever real? I don’t know. All I know is there was a breach of con­tract so it didn’t hap­pen,” he said.

Speak­ing on the is­sues of cul­tural and lan­guage bar­ri­ers Cr Will­cox was adamant coun­cil had af­forded WCI ev­ery pos­si­ble cour­tesy, in fact bor­der­ing on set­ting un­sus­tain­able prece­dents “that writ­ten con­tracts don’t mean any­thing”.

While Mr El­der said he didn’t know of any other de­vel­oper in the his­tory of the Whit­sun­days who’d en­dured the “im­ped­i­ment” of a bank guar­an­tee, Cr Will­cox said it was writ­ten into the con­tract for who­ever bought the land, to en­sure it would be de­vel­oped and not just “land­banked”.

He also de­nied that with an elec­tion com­ing up pol­i­tics had come into play, say­ing “if this con­tract had set­tled when it was sup­posed to we would have been far away from the elec­tion”.

And he stood by his de­ci­sion of last week.

“Have you ever heard of the straw that broke the camel’s back?” he asked.

“That week I was pre­pared to give, on top of the seven months we’ve al­ready given, but an­other two weeks af­ter that - it’s time then to put this back out to the mar­ket. There may be some other peo­ple there who are ready to rock and roll on this – there may not.”

Mark Beale who is pres­i­dent of the Whit­sun­day branch of Mr Wang’s China Aus­tralia En­trepreneurs As­so­ci­a­tion said the CAEAI didn’t want to make com­ment un­til hav­ing spo­ken fur­ther to Mr Wang, other than to say, “he’s been ap­proached by other peo­ple to do the de­vel­op­ment in their area and on their prop­er­ties and he’s con­sid­er­ing those op­tions. We don’t know what de­ci­sion he will make”.

ON SITE: Whit­sun­day Re­gional Coun­cil Deputy Mayor An­drew Will­cox stand­ing be­side the block of land on Water­son Way he says he would love to see de­vel­oped for the com­mu­nity, and which was for­merly ear­marked for an Air­lie Beach Chi­na­town.

ON RECORD: Chi­na­town has been a long run­ning is­sue for the com­mu­nity, many of whom are con­cerned about what will hap­pen next.

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