Editorial: Zealandia a black financial hole

Last updated 05:00 15/12/2012

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OPINION: As a conservation project, Wellington's Zealandia has been an outstanding success. Thanks to the predator-free environment created in a valley on the edge of Karori, the dawn chorus has returned to the capital and tui, kereru and other native birds have become commonplace.

Unfortunately, as a tourism venture, Zealandia has been an unmitigated failure. The only good financial news since it built a $16 million visitors centre and embarked on an ill-advised attempt to recast itself as a tourist attraction was the $1,386,044 deficit in its latest annual report. That, at least, was $555,474 less than forecast.

Zealandia has become a financial black hole that will need regular bailouts from the Wellington City Council to survive. The sanctuary's interim chairman, former auditor-general Kevin Brady, admitted as much when the council was asked to provide an extra $350,000 over three years.

After grim warnings about Zealandia's future, the council's strategy and policy committee had little choice but to agree. However, wary of the prospect of Zealandia coming to the council cap in hand for years to come, it has put its decision out for public consultation, rather than definitely including it in the next annual plan.

That is a wise move. The extra cash sought by the sanctuary would take the council's total financial commitment for the next three years to $2.1m. That is on top of the significant sums it has already handed over and the $10.4m interest-free loan it provided for the visitors centre. Interest-free, that is, for Zealandia. The debt-laden council did not get the cash without cost.

Ratepayers are paying $650,000 a year in interest on the loan.

Something has to give. The council is in a bind because the outstanding success of Zealandia as a conservation venture means it is too important to be allowed to fail. At the same time, ratepayers cannot be expected to constantly prop up an organisation that is pretending to be something it is not.

Zealandia's financial woes stem from its attempt to turn itself into a tourist attraction. The intention was to become self-sustaining, but projected visitor numbers were wildly optimistic and have not been helped by the huge leap in entry fees needed to fund the visitors centre. A family of two adults and up to three children has to shell out $71.50 for full admission. In economically straitened times, Zealandia has priced itself out of the market.

Fortunately, hope is on the horizon. Mr Brady is part of an interim board which is charged with sharpening the focus on Zealandia to get back on a sound financial footing and which appears to have embraced the challenge.

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To survive, Zealandia needs to attract sponsorship, bequests and a boost in membership, as well as more visitors. The easiest way to do all of those is to return to its original mission. As a high-cost tourist attraction, Zealandia has failed. As a low-cost conservation project, it has a future.

Last month, the sanctuary tagged its 400th kaka, and there are now thought to be up to 250 of the native parrots living within its boundaries. That is a remarkable result, and underscores the important role the safe haven plays as a breeding ground for endangered wildlife. That is where it should concentrate its efforts.

- The Dominion Post

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