Toowoomba’s Wagner family has reiterated its interest in building Sydney’s second airport at Badgery’s Creek.
This follows the Federal Government’s announcement this month (May 2017) to commit up to $5.3 billion over the next decade towards Australia’s biggest infrastructure project.
“We’re in discussion with the Feds now to try and take a position with Badgery’s Creek to build it,” Wagner’s company chairman John Wagner said at an Agribusiness Australia lunch in Melbourne earlier this month (May 5).
He said there was no reason the airport couldn’t be built in two to three years and more cheaply than the $6 billion price tag the Government had on it.
Mr Wagner and his brothers Denis, Neill and Joe shot to national prominence when they self-funded and completed building Australia’s newest airport, Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport at a conservative cost of about $200 million.
It was the first public airport to be completed since Tullamarine was opened almost 50 years ago and since Federation without Government funding.
“There was a lot of scepticism,” Mr Wagner recalled. “We couldn’t borrow money. The banks didn’t want to know us because we had no customers. It was a big spend. They couldn’t comprehend the fact we would build something without customers and a guaranteed income.”
The 2.87km long runway (almost equivalent to Brisbane’s 3km runway) and terminal, which has a capacity to handle1.3 million passengers annually plus other supporting infrastructure took just 19 months and 11 days to complete. It opened in November 2014.
This month, weekly passenger flights in and out of Toowoomba jumped from 74 to to 89. Later this year or early next year Mr Wagner expects that to increase to more than 100. The airlines currently servicing Wellcamp include Qantaslink, Airnorth, Regional Express plus a weekly 747 Cathay Pacific freighter service to Hong Kong.
Speaking on ABC Radio National this month Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said he was a big fan of John Wagner.
What they had done at Wellcamp was deliver an airport at very low cost, on time and on budget, he said. “It was a great example of how private enterprise can do this exceptionally well. If there is a way to have private enterprise like the Wagner’s involved in this I would be very supportive of that.”
The Wagners began in Toowoomba 28 years ago in 1989 with a small concrete operation, which they have since built up to be a major construction and materials business.
“We grew quite quickly and what we found in the early 2000s we were running a multi-national company based out of a regional centre without an airport. As a result it was holding us back and making it very difficult to do business,” Mr Wagner said.
“We found we couldn’t attract people to Toowoomba because there was no connectivity.”
The decision to build an airport was made by the brothers over the bonnet of a car in April 2012. “In June we had an application into council and approval by the end of 2012,” Mr Wagner said. No federal or state approval was required to build the airport.
Approval was needed however by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority to build it to their standards and Department of Defence to operate the airport because it was in a restricted airspace. It took five and a half months for the Wagner’s to re-engineer the airspace and gain approval.
What made it easier for the family was the airport was able to be built on their own 2023 hectare landholding next to their 500ha business park without having to go to tender or do an environmental impact study. Noise and environmental studies were conducted but weren’t needed before construction began.
The business park, consisting of industrial and commercial land, was approved by the local council in 2001. Sites can be bought as freehold or developed and leased. Already 2 million square metres of the park has since been opened and serviced.
“It’s a very green business park,” Mr Wagner said. “We fully recycle water; we use our earth-friendly concrete wherever we can; that’s concrete without cement.
“The construction of the airport alone saved 6600 tonnes of carbon by using that product. That’s a Wagner product we’ve been developing over the last 7-8 years.”
About 50,000 cubic metres of earth-friendly concrete was used and almost 400 people were involved at the peak of construction. “We had the (two) quarries on the site so we kept about 350,000 truck movements off the local roads. It had no impact on the community whatsoever,” Mr Wagner said.
A neigbouring farmer has been the only critic along with Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones.
The decision to build the airport was helped by being located in one of the largest agricultural producing regions in the country, the Darling Downs, with the highest concentration of feedlot cattle in the country and being within an hour’s drive of four accredited Chinese abattoirs.
Another factor driving the decision was the $1.6 billion road project crossing the range running past the end of the runway, which is due to open in about 18 months.
“It will give us a travel time between Toowoomba and Brisbane from the airport of about an hour and 20 minutes,” Mr Wagner said. “It’s the biggest inland road project that’s ever happened in Australia.”
“Something we didn’t really contemplate when we made the decision to build Wellcamp was the amount of confidence it would give people to invest. We’ve seen unprecedented investment in our region.”
As a result of owning and operating the airport, including staffing of all services, Mr Wagner said Wellcamp was able to achieve “profitability a hell of a lot quicker than we thought”.
With the cargo business, Mr Wagner believed Toowoomba was an ideal hub given that agricultural exports, especially to China and other Asian countries, had increased by more than 85 per cent over the last seven to eight years and were continuing to increase by 20pc a year.
“To me we could have just had the freighter service (without the passenger aircraft),” he said. “Everyone in the industry said freighters don’t run out of regional Australia. Guess what they do now.
“After two years we able to convince Cathay Pacific to run a 747 freighter out of Wellcamp up to Hong Kong for distribution to the US, Europe, China, Vietnam, Bangkok, Korea, Singapore and the Middle East.
“It’s the first time there has ever been a scheduled freighter service out of a regional port in Australia.”
The first Cathay flight November 23, 2015 left for Hong Kong with 58 tonnes of chilled beef on board.
“It’s amazing what goes on those cargo planes,” Mr Wagner said “You’ve got beef, chicken, lamb, pork, horticultural products – lettuce, mangoes, seafood. Then you have the oversized stuff – cars, turbines back to the United States from the gas fields to get overhauled, poly pipe sent to Manchester for testing by Queensland Gas. It’s wherever you’ve got time sensitive freight or people prepared to pay for it it goes on the aircraft.”
The decision to go with a longer runway, which can cater for 747s or A380s has proven to be a wise move with a weekly Cathay Pacific freighter service now locked in, which Mr Wagner hopes will be extended to two or even three services a week by the end of this year.
“All the oversize freight that used to be trucked to Sydney or Melbourne now comes to Wellcamp,” he said. “Brisbane international airport has never had a scheduled freight service ever.
“So we’re quite proud of what we’ve been able to achieve and the amount of employment and investment we’re starting to get.”
Construction of a milk factory is planned to begin at Wellcamp in June. The first stage, according to Mr Wagner, is the production of 30 million tins of infant formula for air freight export.
Stage two is to aim for having two jumbos a day loaded with fresh milk. “So there is another 200-300 jobs at the factory and the flow on effect for transporters, dairy farmers is a huge boon.”
There are also plans to extend the size of the terminal to handle 2.2 million passengers annually.
– JOHN CARSON