Marlborough Tourist Venue Owner Seeks Legal Advice Over Proposed Termination of Lease – “It’s gut wrenching. I am numb”, Says Owner

Marlborough Tourist Venue Owner Seeks Legal Advice Over Proposed Termination of Lease - "It's gut wrenching. I am numb", Says Owner 2

More than 117 native animals to be slaughtered as ‘David & Goliath’ legal battle threatened

Marlborough District Council’s port company kills off Marlborough’s leading tourism experience– with unjust forced closure of Picton’s iconic thriving aquarium and wildlife rehabilitation & breeding centre and its Picton Cinemas – a World First

In what could be a world first, Picton’s EcoWorld Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre will be forced to close and as a result euthanise many of its resident native animals.

EcoWorld is and has for some time been Marlborough’s most visited paid for visitor experience with more than 51,000 visitors a year, including 36,000 children and is thriving in these Covid times.  EcoWorld has been open for 19 years and is estimated to bring about $4.75 million annually in visitor spend into Marlborough’s economy.

On 16 April Marlborough District Council’s 100% owned subsidiary Port Marlborough New Zealand, without any prior warning or consultation, served what is a death sentence on its 20 year bare land tenant EcoWorld Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre on the Picton Foreshore.  

With just over 3 months notice, Port Marlborough’s property manager Ryan Lock advised EcoWorld that:  ”… I understand this may not be the news you expected to receive..however”

(1) EcoWorld’s 20 year lease wouldn’t be renewed (lease is only for 910 sqm of bare land obscured from the main port area by the Edwin Fox site and rent $15,000 pa.)

(2) ordered EcoWorld to clear out its wholly own freehold premises

(3) subsequently offered to assist EcoWorld to dispose of or relocate all its native animals and 

(4) in effect offered EcoWorld the nominal sum of $75,000 for EcoWorld’s multi million dollar, purpose-built aquarium building on the condition that EcoWorld kept all of these termination arrangements secret

EcoWorld director John Reuhman said,  

“Its absolutely unbelievable.  It’s gut wrenching.  I am numb.  Why this sudden change of heart by Port Marlborough, at such short notice and in Covid times?  We will have to put down most of the animals.  The animals can’t be released, they are our friends, they can’t fend for themselves in the wild and are the innocent victims of Port Marlborough’s cold, callous approach.  Why, for what purpose?  Is there no other alternative? 

It’s very upsetting that there is not an element of recognition of EcoWorld’s key role and its ongoing contribution to the Marlborough economy, tourism, education, conservation, communities.  EcoWorld is thriving in challenging Covid times with revenue 129% of pre Covid 2019.  It is a very significant Marlborough asset.  We are proudly Marlborough’s most visited paid for visitor experience.  But this forced closure is unbelievable.  Why?  Surely there must be a way that Port Marlborough can achieve what they want to without using our small piece of land wedged between a Council carpark and the Edwin Fox site?

We have been negotiating the lease renewal with Port Marlborough’s CEO Rhys Welbourn and others at Port Marlborough since 21 August 2015, nearly 6 years.  We have always acted in good faith, open, transparent.  Port Marlborough and Marlborough District Council have known for some years about our plans to develop EcoWorld.  Over this period we have always had strong indications from Port  Marlborough that the lease on the Picton foreshore would be renewed or extended allowing us to develop further.  

It’s now total destruction.  No kindness, no compassion, no goodwill, no empathy at all.  It’s heartbreaking after 20 years of dedicated work.

I have also been informally reassured during conversations on several occasions by Marlborough District Council Councillors Deputy Mayor Nadine Taylor and Councillor David Oddie that Port Marlborough would never kick out EcoWorld and its Picton Cinemas.  Councillors Taylor and Oddie have always said EcoWorld and Picton Cinemas are very important community and visitor experiences in Picton and  Marlborough”  Reuhman said.

Reuhman had also been told that on 12 April, four days before Port Marlborough gave EcoWorld its termination notice, the Marlborough District Council’s CFO Martin Fletcher, who is also a Port Marlborough Director, confidentially  briefed Marlborough Mayor John Leggett and all the Marlborough District Councillors about EcoWorld’s impending non-renewal of EcoWorld’s lease.

Fletcher also reportedly told Mayor Leggett and the Marlborough District Councillors that Port Marlborough planned to repurpose the EcoWorld building for temporary use as offices for the $400 million joint Port Marlborough Kiwirail port redevelopment.  Fletcher also is understood to have said that Port Marlborough had plans for the repurposed EcoWorld building at the end of the port redevelopment.  It is believed that this would be as an envirohub and museum hubbed around the Chinese slave, Australian convict and immigrant boat the Edward Fox.  

EcoWorld believes the site would make an ideal hub for a proposed envirohub so that this seems to be a plausible intention.  The problem for EcoWorld, ironically, is that while EcoWorld would of course be a massive drawcard for and an important component of an envirohub, by the time it comes into existence EcoWorld will have been forced to close several years earlier.

Also Ironically, Marlborough District Council has injected hundreds of thousands of dollars of Covid support into Marlborough’s tourism industry.  Yet strangely Marlborough District Council has not seen it appropriate to stop its wholly-owned subsidiary Port Marlborough from effectively killing off of a thriving, privately-owned, regenerative, fully sustainable and self-funded tourism asset that has deep social license and strong collaboration with the community, conservation and education groups.  

And leaving EcoWorld with little option but to have most of the animals put down with six highly-skilled people losing their jobs.  These are extraordinary actions especially in these Covid times, especially when there has been no explanation from Port Marlborough as to why they think it is unavoidable.

EcoWorld is known as “Marlborough’s unique regenerative social enterprise in Nature”.  It makes a significant contribution to many people spanning all ages locally, regionally and nationally, with its dedication and impact, to native animal rehabilitation and breeding activities in partnership with Iwi and DOC.  EcoWorld has huge reach and social licence.  In the words of the Marlborough District Council  “…the aquarium contributes significantly to the social, economic and cultural wellbeing of the community”.

EcoWorld is Marlborough’s most visited paid for tourist experience.  More than 1.1 million visitors, including 706,000 children, have visited EcoWorld since it opened in 2002.  

EcoWorld has employed during its existence 102 graduates (mostly science) in fully paid internships since 2002, giving them invaluable work experience that they would frankly struggle to find elsewhere.

And more than 14,000 people, including 5,000 seniors, watch the latest movies at EcoWorld’s Picton Cinemas every year.  Picton Cinemas is supported by EcoWorld with a $32,000 subsidy every year (in other words EcoWorld devotes, every year, $32,000 to running Picton Cinemas which would otherwise be surplus cash.

EcoWorld is totally privately-owned, self-supporting, financially sustainable, has no debt and owns all its own assets except the land under its building.  EcoWorld does not ask for or receive handouts from third parties.  It is a true regenerative social enterprise.

Reuhman said,  

“EcoWorld’s lawyer and I met with Marlborough Mayor John Leggett on 24 May but he has since  said that the Council would not help stop this.  Mayor Leggett said it was a simple lease matter between EcoWorld and Port Marlborough.  

Mayor Leggett did not seem at all interested about the wellbeing of  the native animals, ignored the importance of EcoWorld’s 19 year continuing contribution to the Picton and Marlborough society and economies and denied any  knowledge of Port Marlborough’s plans for EcoWorld’s building, to be converted into Port  Marlborough’s temporary offices.  

Marlborough District Council saw fit to neither influence or use other available mechanisms it has, to change Port Marlborough’s approach in this.

We have tried to reason with Port Marlborough and its lawyers Bell Gully but they won’t budge from their dogmatic, strict legal approach.  Port Marlborough have now demanded that the tiny site, 48 metres by 18 metres is cleared.  Port Marlborough say they might use the site as a construction staging post (a construction work site in such a prime Picton Foreshore position?) during the three year port redevelopment and that they will consult with Iwi and community about other uses for the land but only once the EcoWorld building is cleared off the land. 

It is a huge loss, for the community, for all the groups and Iwi we collaboratively work with, the graduate interns and for Marlborough’s tourism industry.  And for the injured and sick native wild animals at the top of the South Island.  Everyone misses out.”

And the destruction of this thriving tourism business is all the more illogical and out of touch with the Minister of Tourism, Stuart Nash’s recent announcement of a $200 million Tourism “Communities Support Plan” for five regions in the South Island for tourism to be more sustainable and resilient.  Sustainable and resilient are the very things that EcoWorld has proven over a long period to be 

EcoWorld ticks the boxes of the recommendations of the 2020 Tourism Futures Taskforce.

“You have to wonder if Port Marlborough, Mayor Leggett and the Marlborough District Council are on the same planet earth as us and the rest of the country,”   said Reuhman.  

“Port Marlborough’s board has some very experienced directors who hold directorships in the public and private sectors.  Surely they realise the ramifications?  Destructive actions to native animals, tourism, jobs and the future of up and coming young scientists, collaborations, communities, Iwi.  Surely there must be a way of avoiding all of this?

This is a David and Goliath battle.  We are fighting a cold, heartless, legal approach for a very small piece of reclaimed land, just 48 metres by 18 metres, that currently accommodates  local institution that means and delivers so much to so many people which is apparently going to be used by Port Marlborough for only a couple of years.

We are now going all out to save the animals and save EcoWorld Aquarium and Picton Cinemas.  We have an online petition and are crowdfunding the legal costs, as all EcoWorld’s surplus funds go back in the enterprise.  

We are determined to survive and keep thriving, bouncing forward.”

EcoWorld is taking further legal advice in its attempts to stop Port Marlborough’s actions.

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