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 focused 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 “land-banked”.
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”.