WHANGANUI’S FERRY DREAM
Sailing or sinking?
Plans to run an inter-island ferry from the Whanganui River mouth are pressing ahead, the Chronicle has been told, despite no public statement this year from the company behind the proposal.
Midwest Ferries signed a memorandum of understanding with the Whanganui District Council in May after the council spent $10,000 on a report looking at the ability of a ship to turn around in the Whanganui harbour.
The man behind the proposal, Midwest Ferries director Neville Johnson, would not answer questions the Chronicle had about the proposal.
But Nik Zangouropoulos, a consultant hired by Midwest who later became project director, said the focus this year had been on getting the MoU and with that done the focus now shifted to writing a proposal to take to central government.
Zangouropoulos said the project still needed detailed design, engineering and environmental assessment.
“That will require a fair amount of money.”
He said that would likely need to come from local or central government because it was “too uncertain” for private investment at this stage.
Midwest Ferries announced plans for an inter-island service between Whanganui and Motueka early last year and began courting donations from the public to fund consultants as it built a business case.
In March, 2017 Midwest announced it aimed to raise $100,000 for a business proposal by May.
Trustee Graham Adams said then that it had already raised $42,000 and by April Johnson said $60,000 has been raised in six weeks which he called “staggering stuff”.
In May, a feasibility study was presented to Whanganui district councillors.
One of its authors, consultant Nik Zangouropoulos, said he’d gone from being “a sceptic to an advocate”.
The report found a freight-only service between the two districts was technically and financially feasible and worth a detailed business plan based on a 180m ship carrying up to 70 trucks with one vessel sailing in each direction per day.
After that, Zangouropoulos began working under the title of project director.
Late last year, a Christmas pamphlet was circulated by Midwest Ferries updating people on the project and asking for donations.
“Seasons greeting and remember it’s the season for giving,” it said.
Johnson would not answer the Chronicle’s questions about how much money was eventually raised and what it was spent on.
Adams said he still talked to Johnson but was not involved in fundraising and said his only comment would be “that purpose has been served”.
Midwest and the council
After Midwest’s initial feasibility study, a peer review commissioned by the Whanganui District Council found it contained “an unusually large number of areas ‘parked’ for future study and some critical assumptions”.
On the back of that, the council decided not to include the ferry proposal in the port revitalisation business case it presented to the Government.
But in May, Midwest Ferries and the council signed the memorandum of understanding after a meeting between the two parties.
A copy released to the Chronicle shows the council supports Midwest Ferries “advancing its business case” but said the proposal needed “further clarification or investigation”.
“For Whanganui District Council to support Midwest Ferries’ business planning process, all representations must be an accurate representation of the circumstances, including fundraising which must be compliant with relevant legislation.
It said the MoU was not a commitment of funds from the council.
Whanganui Mayor Hamish McDouall said the MoU was a resolution of the council and developed by staff and Johnson.
“But I think it’s important to support business as best we can. In principal, there’s always been support from council for a ferry service,” he said.
The Marico report
Further to that, the council also paid $10,000 for a report by Marico Marine which asked to review Midwest’s proposal to operate a roll on, roll off (RoRo) service out of Whanganui.
It concluded: “There is little doubt that a 180m RoRo ferry could operate out of the Whanganui River mouth, including swinging and berthing”.
But “significant development and data collection will need to occur to prepare the port facilities”.
It said the turning circle did seem viable, subject to simulation, but not enough was known about the bar and its stability or the entrance to the river.
“Successful and reliable crossing of a deepened Whanganui entrance bar at all states of the tide is critical to the success of future commercial shipping at the port.”
The report said “considerable” dredging would be required.
“[The] development would have little choice but to consider the presence of a dredger that has the capacity top rapidly clear the bar . . . after storm events.”
Marico recommended “the proposed ferry development proceed overall by using advanced simulation to develop the safe manoeuvring parameters required for a vessel to safely utilise the port”.
“Council are urged to take the lead in establishing a wave rider buoy off the entrance and thus securing a most valuable flow of information for this port.”
Midwest’s Neville Johnson declined to talk to the Chronicle about the proposal’s progress.
It was in September 2016 that local businessman Neville Johnson approached the Chronicle with his bold plan to start up a ferry service between Whanganui and Motueka.
The Chron splashed the story on page one; Midwest Ferries ambitious idea grabbed plenty of interest; Johnson appreciated the publicity.
There was plenty more initial publicity following that first story. But it has been more than a year now since any public progress reports.
In August 2017, Midwest Ferries announced it would have meetings with officials from the Ministry of
Business, Innovation and Employment and the Transport Ministry “in the next two to three weeks”.
No word on whether that took place.
At that same time it also promised a joint statement with Whanganui District Council on “work under way”. Nothing yet.
We are assured work is going on behind the scenes, but there is no doubt the ferry has some rugged seas to traverse if it is to find a berth in reality.
The next step — detailed design, and engineering and environmental assessments — will be costly, with project director Nik Zangouropoulos suggesting the money will come from central or local government.
But his admission that the plan is “too uncertain” for private investment may have taxpayers and ratepayers wondering why they should take the gamble.
Midwest Ferries may have a memorandum of understanding with Whanganui District Council, but there is no commitment of council funding. An MoU is a friendship, not a marriage.
However, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones’ Provincial Growth Fund would seem a potential target, particularly as part of Midwest’s sales pitch is the national value of another Cook Strait crossing.
Another development this year has been a study — at a cost of $10,000 to council — on the possible operation of a roll on, roll off ferry at the Whanganui port.
The fish hook here is that — while feasible — it would need massive and consistent dredging of the river.
The Chronicle revisits the ferry plan with a report in today’s paper.
We approached Neville Johnson for comment. He refused to answer any of our many questions.
That is something he is perfectly entitled to do.
But as he has been given many thousands of dollars in public donations, and at least $10,000 of ratepayer funds, he may feel an obligation to give the Whanganui public an update.
Graham Adams, Rod Pearce and Neville Johnson posed at the Whanganui harbour to launch a fundraising drive for the ferry.
An artist’s impressions of the Midwest Ferries’ concept.