Sixty five million dollars is the asking price to upgrade Newcastle Airport's runway to a standard required for international aviation.
It's an investment that would create 4500 jobs and generate an estimated $12.7 billion in economic benefits through international airfreight, industrial expansion and increased tourism traffic over the next two decades.
But the clock is ticking on efforts to secure a benefactor for the project, which must coincide with Department of Defence plans to spend at least $120 million on maintenance and remediation works at the neighboring RAAF base next year.
If the moment is not seized it is estimated the cost of upgrading the runway to international standard (Code E) as a standalone project would be $200 million.
A NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment briefing note, obtained by the Newcastle Herald through the NSW Government Information (Public Access) Act (GIPA), reveals the state government turned down an opportunity to invest Snowy Hydro Legacy funds into a broader airport upgrade project, which included the runway upgrade.
Instead it invested in the Williamtown Special Activation Precinct, which was announced in late May.
The federal government, in particular the Department of Defence, is now seen as a savior for the runway upgrade.
It is hoped money for the project will be allocated in the October Federal Budget.
The Herald understands recent talks between the federal government and the airport have been positive.
David Gillespie, whose electorate of Lyne stretches from the Lower Hunter to Wauhope, said he had personally lobbied the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack and Defence Minister Linda Reynoldsabout the project.
"They can definitely see the value of it," Mr Gillespie said.
"It represents incredible value both in terms of allowing high-tech, wide-bodied defence aircraft to use the runway plus increasing the opportunities for trade and tourism."
"Everything is getting pulled every which way at the moment because of COVID-19 but I will continue to lobby for it."
The Herald can also reveal a letter signed by the heads of 12 industry, business and education organisations was recently sent to the Prime Minister expressing support for the project.
The NSW Minerals Council, the Committee for the Hunter, the Hunter Business Chamber, Hunter Defence, the University of Newcastle, Hunter Workers and Business NSW were among those that signed the letter.
"The fundamentals of our catchment are very strong and plain to see. The region boasts a large population of 1.1 million, a diverse and highly skilled workforce, a globally ranked university with 40,000 students, an aspiring global city, a significant defence presence, a fertile and produce agricultural hinterland and coastal fisheries. These elements place the region in an enviable position, but it will fall short of its potential without global connectivity," the letter says.
"As a unified voice on behalf of our region we strongly encourage the government to invest in this infrastructure upgrade and allow us all to reap the benefits. Whilst the word transformational can be overused, we feel it is appropriate in the context of the benefits a truly international airport will have on our collective ambitions."
A spokesman for Mr McCormack, who is also Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development told the Herald the government had received a number of proposals from airports around the country seeking support for capital investment projects.
"As with all of these proposals, the Government welcomes the opportunity to discuss these proposals with interested parties, including relevant state and territory jurisdictions," he said.
Newcastle Airport chief executive Peter Cock said he appreciated the support shown for the upgrade, which involves deepening and strengthening the runway, from across the region.
"We also know the business case stacks up incredibly well and the economic benefit for the region is in the order of billions of dollars.Newcastle Airport chief executive Peter Cock
"There appears to be a genuine willingness to invest in the Hunter, which we know is one of the engine rooms of the nation's economy. Our region is in a position to help lead the country's recovery and the airport's role will be key," he said.
"Business groups, key industry players, politicians and the broader community are unanimous in their vocal support."
"We also know the business case stacks up incredibly well and the economic benefit for the region is in the order of billions of dollars. On the back of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenge of a daunting economic recovery ahead of us, this is a once in a generation opportunity that we are urging the government to seize."
Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer and Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said the project was a top priority for their respective councils.
"Newcastle and the Hunter Region is an increasingly globally connected market, supplying products and services to an expanding customer base, with significant commercial activity flowing through the airport. Along with this comes jobs," Councillor Nelmes said.
"The City of Newcastle is always very willing to support our key partners to grow and expand, especially when it comes to creating more jobs for Novocastrians."
"This has never been as important as it is today, with hundreds of thousands of livelihoods effected by COVID-19."
"As we strengthen our connectivity through our global transport gateways such as the Airport and Port of Newcastle, we will see significant growth in the amount jobs required to provide our services and connect our people and products with national and international opportunities."
The state government's Snowy Hydro Legacy Fund committee recommended in August last year against funding further investigations into the Newcastle Airport upgrade.
"This is informed by the findings from the pre-feasibility study which found that: 1. The significant costs to the NSW Government are unlikely to be justified by forecast economic benefits to regional NSW, and 2. Benefits generated are expected to primarily accrue to the airport's commercial operator, Newcastle Airport Pty Ltd, which is owned by Newcastle and Port Stephens councils."
Significantly, the committee left the door ajar to revisit the project if the federal government committed to the project.
"If co-contributions towards the Williamtown Airport Upgrade proposal are identified from sources other than the NSW Government the department could initiate a review of the project," Regions, Industry, Agriculture and Resources coordinator general Gary Barnes said.
The Williamtown special activation precinct, which is seen as complementary to the airport upgrade, aims to unlock millions of dollars of private sector investment and create thousands of direct jobs in the region over coming decades.
The precinct's focus will be the creation of a national and international defence, aerospace and advanced manufacturing hub, which, in-turn, will generate future investment and employment opportunities in the region.
It will build on $11.79 million defence, aviation and technology commercial precinct (Astra Aerolab) adjacent to Williamtown airport.
The state government has allocated $5 million to create a precinct masterplan over the next two years.
In announcing the project, Mr Barilaro acknowledged the importance and of the runway extension and said it would be considered as part of the precinct's planning process.
"I know there has been a lot of conversation about the runway extension but you can't just isolate one item, one piece of the puzzle," he said.
"That's why the special activation precinct will look at master planning this whole region and we will revisit the runway as part of the masterplan going forward." Mr Barilaro said.
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