Porters skifield field 'could close'

MICHAEL WRIGHT
Last updated 05:00 14/07/2011

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The Porters ski area may close if a controversial development does not go ahead, a director says.

A bid by skifield owners Blackfish to expand operations is being heard before Environment Canterbury and the Selwyn District Council this week.

The $500 million development would take in 226 hectares of the nearby Crystal Valley and include a 3500-bed alpine village, hot pools and a gondola ski-lift.

The company says the field would grow to 419ha of skiable terrain, allowing for more than 200,000 skier visits a season – a similar size to the Cardrona skifield.

Sydney-based Blackfish director Simon Harvey told the hearing that Porters had to expand to survive.

"The current operation at Porters is not viable and without this proposal, the reality is we will be forced to shut the skifield," he said.

Ageing infrastructure and a lack of beginner and intermediate terrain were major problems, he said.

Porters had three outdated T-bar lifts that would be uneconomic to replace, and substituting them with chairlifts would require more skier terrain to be profitable.

Harvey said Blackfish bought Porters "with the expansion and vision in mind" and was "not purchased for the current operations".

The field was in a "precarious commercial position", he said, caught between the larger Mt Hutt and Southern Lakes ski areas and the smaller club fields in the central South Island.

The ski area had made an operating profit in the last two seasons on the back of record visitor and revenue levels, but in four years of Blackfish ownership it had not met financing or depreciation costs and had returned financial losses.

The development took shape this year after a controversial land-swap deal between Blackfish and the Department of Conservation. Blackfish would hand over 70ha of forest at Steep Head Gully on Banks Peninsula and 320ha of Porters Valley ski-lease land to the department in exchange for conditional freehold of the Crystal Valley block.

The proposal annoyed conservationists concerned about the principle and the scale of development.

Fish & Game environment officer Tony Hawker was not opposed to the plan but said the development's wastewater plan could threaten the Porter River.

"At the moment, the Porter River is almost pristine in terms of nitrogen levels," he said.

"I'm not saying [any increase] is going to be so bad as to kill things, but it needs some monitoring. I believe they could mitigate it, but they just haven't [included it] in their application."

The developers predicted a fivefold increase in the river's nitrogen levels, but Hawker said that estimate could be generously low.

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Director of development Michael Sleigh said the ski area was "listening to what people have got to say" on environmental issues.

"It's probably the biggest environmental plan ever offered by a ski area or tourist operator," he said.

The hearing will end on July 22.

- The Press

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