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Is a tech economy the answer?

September 7 2020 by Scott Stevens

Is a tech economy the answer?

Take one look at house prices and social issues in San Francisco and the idea Queenstown should reinvent itself as the Silicon Valley of the southern hemisphere suddenly becomes much less appealing.

The median house price in Silicon Valley is NZ$2 million, compared to Queenstown’s $1m, and a one-bedroom rental is NZ$1,261 a week - triple what people pay here.

But, there is no doubt we need to diversify the economy from the low-wage, environmentally and socially-destructive industry that is mass tourism. We had all our eggs in one shonky blender, and Covid-19 hit the on button.

It could be that Queenstown is uniquely positioned in New Zealand to handle the pressures of gentrification that a tech hub brings, after all, we’ve been struggling with affordable housing for more than a decade and are beginning to put some real solutions in place.

They would need to be beefed up, with the excellent Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust given more and more backing and support, along with potentially rent-controlled developments and ring-fenced housing opportunities for key workers.

Maybe in the coming decades we’ll see a decline in Airbnb as the properties are bought by tech workers happy to become a valuable part of Queenstown’s colourful community, while all those multi-million holiday homes which sit empty for much of the year are instead occupied by tech moguls who create opportunities and jobs, and not just tech jobs.

Tech conferences, for example, would bring fresh blood to town while supporting the currently-struggling local events and accommodation industry, like the Morgo Conference held here last week. It was somewhat controversial, as Aucklanders attended, following the letter of the Covid-level 2.5 law, if not the spirit. That shows all industries will be affected by Covid restrictions, although perhaps none will be as heavily impacted as tourism.

By 2022, all those holiday homes should be connected to ultrafast broadband too. UFB came to Queenstown CBD and other parts in 2016, but is still being rolled out to the suburbs and townships. Work begins connecting Lake Hayes Estate this month, while Arrowtown, Arthur’s Point, Jack’s Point are scheduled to be connected over the next year or two.

Along with a burgeoning film industry, education sector and other high-wage industries, tech companies could allow Queenstown to flourish with a more sustainable, circular economy, while still being bolstered by a manageable tourism industry.

It will take some proactive planning, though, so we’re not asking “Siri, how do you close Pandora’s box?”

Paul Taylor

- Scott Stevens
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