From tourism and higher education to global bloodstock transport and freight logistics, there is no other infrastructure project in the Hunter with as much potential to transform as many sectors of the region's economy as the Newcastle Airport runway upgrade.
Few projects from regional Australia in recent decades have attracted such a united show of support from business and industry groups and from across the political divide.
"There are so many companies in the Hunter that would benefit from it," Leigh Bryant from Mayfield-based Scorpion International Freight Services, said.
"This is a great opportunity. Hopefully this time we won't allow people to come up with excuses about why it can't be done, we need to focus on why it should be done."
But time is running out to secure the $65 million in federal funding for the upgrade, which must coincide with a planned RAAF base maintenance and remediation project due to commence next April.
"With the attention that Williamtown has got and conversations we are having with all sides of politics at a state and federal level, the timing of the overlay at Williamtown and the jobs that will come off the back of this, it's all pointing to a good outcome for the runway and it would be political suicide for anyone not to invest in the runway," Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer said.
"If you talk about wanting to get jobs going, if you want to talk about shovel-ready projects, something that is in the planning stages and has had millions of dollars spent on it, has all the facts and data that you would ever want and the will of a region behind it; if it doesn't happen you are going to have just under a million devastated people here in the Hunter and the wider area."
Management consultant Oliver Lamb who worked with Newcastle Airport on its business case for the runway extension said international connectivity with regional centres was becoming increasingly important in the twenty-first century.
"Around the world what we are seeing is the emergence destinations that haven't previously been on the map for non-stop flights and tourism," he said.
"Gone are the days when people could spend three or four weeks on vacation, people now want short breaks to different locations. That means places like Sydney and Melbourne where a lot of tourists have been to before have lost popularity for repeat visitors, they want to try out something new."
Destination Port Stephens chief executive Eileen Gilliland said the region's already booming tourism sector had the potential to become a south-east Asian tourist hub.
"It would enable us to really extend our market by attracting visitors directly from Asia and those connecting from the UK and places like that," she said.
"They are still going to go on and discover the cities as well but it would allow us to get them here first rather than have to encourage them out of the cities."
In addition, upgrading Newcastle Airport to international status would save up to eight hours travel time for the 1.3 million people who travel from around the Hunter to international destinations each year.
Wellcamp Airport west of Brisbane is among Australia's regional airports that are already reaping the benefits of a Code E-rated runway upgrade.
Cathay Pacific transports cargo from the airport to Hong Kong weekly.
"It's been critical to agricultural producers in the Darling Downs. It means they don't have to battle through Brisbane traffic and their products get to market quicker which is really critical in some of those high premium Asian agricultural markets," Mr Lamb said.
"[Upgrading Newcastle Airport's runway to Code E] would mean being able to fly non-stop to markets that are critical to the Hunter's future."
Higher education, in particular, the University of Newcastle, which hosts thousands of international students, will be among the biggest beneficiaries of international flight capacity.
"We know that to continue to build a robust and sustainable regional economy, investment in infrastructure that will support global connections is critical. It's exciting to think about the opportunities that will open-up in education, trade, research and innovation for Newcastle, Port Stephens and the Hunter with expanded international flight capacity at Williamtown, University of Newcastle Vice-chancellor Alex Zelinsky said.
"The University of Newcastle will play a significant role in this enormous economic opportunity through partnerships with industry, welcoming new students and talent to our region, and through research and development on our campuses and at our Williamtown Hub, that will complement the future global directions of our regions."
An international standard runway would also been a boon for the Hunter's multimillion-dollar thoroughbred and racing industries.
Overseas horses presently arrive in Melbourne before being quarantined for two weeks at Werribee.
Hunter-based Australian Bloodstock director Jamie Lovett said the ability to fly direct to Newcastle, combined with a Port Stephens horse quarantine centre, could make the Hunter the main entry point for horses from the northern hemisphere.
"On average we are bringing 20 horses a year and 90 per cent of those end up at Newcastle with Kris Lees," he said.
"I feel sure it could be viable [a horse quarantine centre]. You only have to look at the number of stallions that are shuttled from Europe and the UK through the likes of Coolmore and Arrowfield [horse studs], and to take it a step further, Japan.
"Those horses could be quarantined in Port Stephens before making a short trip to the Hunter Valley."
Similarly, Newcastle Jockey Club chief executive Matt Benson said the project was a natural fit for the horse racing industry.
"The cost-benefit analysis is extraordinary and the proximity to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley is key," he said.
"If we get our 500 stable development off the ground Newcastle will become the northern centre for horse training and the key location for the importation of horses from the northern hemisphere. It just ticks so many boxes."
Newcastle Airport's existing runway was installed in the 1950s and has been resurfaced numerous times over the years and needs to be fully upgraded to meet the needs of modern RAAF aircraft.
The Department of Defence, which plans to spend $120million on its share of the work, is unlikely to make a similar investment in the runway for 20 years.
A Code E runway, suitable for both international passenger aircraft and the needs of the RAAF base, will involve creating a runway that is 800millimetres deep with 350 millimetre flanges.
Newcastle Airport will operate as normal during the 15 month project.
It is estimated the project would create 4500 jobs and generate $12.7 billion in economic benefits through international airfreight, industrial expansion and increased tourism traffic over the next two decades.
But if the Code E upgrade is not done as part of the Department of Defence works it is estimated it would cost $200 million (as opposed to $65million) as a standalone project.
"It's wonderful to see our region has a real understanding of the benefits that an upgraded airport will deliver," Newcastle Airport chief executive Peter Cock said.
"There's no doubt that delivering full international connectivity will be a game changer for northern NSW. It will also signal a real partnership between our community, government at all levels and Defence.
A letter signed by The heads of 12 industry, business and education organisations was recently sent to Prime Minister Scott Morrison 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.
Paterson MP Meryl Swanson discussed the project with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack in June.
"The community wants this to happen. The March 2019 ReachTEL survey found that five local government areas across the Hunter said that 95 per cent of the Hunter residents want international flights out of Williamtown," she said.
"I implore the government not to let this opportunity slip past. We must optimise this work so that our regional economy and its community benefit from the jobs and connectivity this will bring.
"We have a shot at creating over 4000 jobs and real opportunity for our region."
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