Toowoomba’s Wagner Group made history by building Australia’s first private international cargo and passenger airport and now it is throwing its support behind a Riverina council’s plan to build an air freight hub.
It’s proposed by the Edward River Council, centred on Deniliquin, which is seeking $5 million from the federal government’s Building Better Regions fund to construct a 2km runway, along with matching funds from the NSW government.
The Wagner Group and Brisbane West Wellcamp Airport signed an MOU with the council in 2016 to develop an air freight centre at Deniliquin and take advantage of Wellcamp’s existing supply chain for fresh produce into Asia via Toowoomba.
John Wagner said the proposal made a lot of sense.
“The capital costs to build their own airport to freight produce direct to Asia would be $150m – that’s too far-fetched for them,” he said.
“I’ve spoken to a number of people who want to invest if an airport gives them the outlet.
“They have good product, some of which just needs processors, in the fruit, vege and beef lines.”
The proposal to use the gateway of Toowoomba to send produce from southern Australia’s food bowl areas of the Goulburn, Murray and Murrumbidgee Valleys attracted 200 attendees at a recent public forum in the centre, attended by Mr Wagner.
As a result, Edward River Council administrator, Ashley Hall, said the idea was gaining momentum.
You won't know yourselves in five years if you get this going
Developing the airport as a regional hub had been part of the Deniliquin Council’s strategic plan before it merged with the Conargo Shire Council last year, according to Mr Hall, who had been Deniliquin’s mayor at the time of the merge.
“We looked at all options, which put us in touch with the Wagners, and one thing led to another,” he said.
Acknowledging plans being mooted for a Wagner-style airport to be built from scratch at Shepperton or Bendigo to freight produce direct from Victoria to Asia, Mr Hall said it made more sense to use the facilities and linkages already established through Wellcamp.
“The model stacks up well for us,” he said.
“We’d have our produce in Asia within 12 hours, through links they’ve already made.”
Mr Hall said they were initially hoping to shift 200 tonnes of produce a week, but connecting with niche markets and value-adding raw product could add to that. Developing the market for Murray Cod was one example.
The runway development project has received the support of the Riverina and Murray Regional Organisation of Councils (RAMROC), and an MOU has been signed with a training college in Melbourne that would establish a facility for 100 students to study agricultural and safe food practices.
Mr Hall said the Wagner Group was contributing its expertise only to the project, but this could extend to a cold storage facility once government funding was approved.
The council is prepared to contribute $3.5, and has engaged Robbie Sefton to facilitate private investors.
“When John Wagner addressed our forum last week, he said we wouldn’t know ourselves in five years if we got this up and going,” Mr Hall said.