Life story

Life story: John Martin, a community-minded real estate developer

There won’t have been many property developers whose actions inspired a street party in a small New Zealand town, but it’s one of the ways John Martin is remembered.

It was 2007. Irish billionaire Eamon Cleary had left three historic miners’ cottages in Arrowtown to deteriorate to a terrible state. Martin, who had a reputation for being heritage-minded, brokered a deal in which he bought Cleary’s cottages for $1.9 million and then sold them back to Queenstown Lakes District Council for the same amount.

As he said at mountain scene journal, it shows that it takes local developers to have empathy with a community.

His explanation was erased when The press covered the story.

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“I didn’t think what was going on was right, so I thought I’d sort it out with the council,” he said. “I just wanted to see them preserved and help the community, that’s all.”

Martin, who died on December 23 at the age of 69, was not from Queenstown. He was born in Wellington and lived in Auckland before moving south to Dunedin for college, earning degrees in law and business.

One of his Dunedin friends, Judge Colin Doherty, went into business with Martin and restored a series of terraced houses on Stuart Street which have since been recognized by the Historic Places Trust.

“He had a vision to save things, in a way that was also a good business proposition,” Doherty said. “He had a great interest in architecture.

Doherty remembered Martin as erudite and intellectually curious.

“He was always cultured and informed. He had an open mind. He was always up to date and always ready to offer an informed opinion.

Real estate developer John Martin is known for his community spirit and curiosity.

Provided

Real estate developer John Martin is known for his community spirit and curiosity.

“He wasn’t an opinionated person, but he liked a great discussion. If you saw it was Johnny calling you on the phone, you knew you had to set aside 45 minutes.

Many others remembered Martin the same way.

“He was a very intelligent character” mountain scene said journalist Philip Chandler.

“He was smarter than a guy who builds just to make a quick buck,” said businessman Al Spary. “He read 10 to 20 international newspapers before most people got up.”

Young Spary considered Martin a mentor.

“He had a big heart and he had it all along. The same things drove him, that you have to do things right and for the greater good. He made the city a better place, aesthetically.

Martin’s beginnings in Queenstown were relatively humble. He and John Guthrie, who also became a major local promoter, obtained the first hawker’s license in Queenstown Mall, in 1974, and set up a fruit wheelbarrow.

“He was in college and I was about 23,” Guthrie said.

Martin stepped in to save Arrowtown's historic cottages.

Provided

Martin stepped in to save Arrowtown’s historic cottages.

They remained “best friends throughout our working lives”, he said, and lived next door to each other at Lake Hayes, where Martin built a new house and Guthrie restored an old one. closed.

Martin, Guthrie and Howard Paterson went into business together in Queenstown as Excelsior Holdings.

His experience in Dunedin had demonstrated the importance of heritage restoration and quality construction. He said mountain scene in 1993 that “the only way to develop Queenstown successfully is with absolutely top quality buildings that will last and look good for the next two generations”.

After Martin’s death, it was often said that the appearance and style of the Queenstown center owed much to his vision, including his meticulous approach to maintenance and cleanliness.

He developed Ansett House​, built on a former motel site, and bought and restored a series of key buildings in the Queenstown Mall, including the famous Winnie’s Gourmet Pizza Bar​, and made developments on Church St.

He was also a partner in the development of Steamer Wharf, which Spary called “a bloody and beautiful building”.

Martin’s advocacy of his adopted town has extended to him becoming a public face of a campaign to keep Queenstown Airport in local ownership.

“He only ever marched to the beat of his own drum,” Guthrie said.

Steamer Wharf was one of Martin's developments in Queenstown.

Andrea Deuchrass / Stuff

Steamer Wharf was one of Martin’s developments in Queenstown.

As he saw business opportunities in Queenstown, Martin also moved for the lifestyle. Doherty joked that one of the reasons he didn’t know Martin in college was because Martin was so often away skiing or giving ski lessons. His interest in skiing also led him to establish a sister city relationship between Queenstown and the American ski resort of Aspen, Colorado.

Martin would later own property in Aspen as well as Noosa in Queensland, where he would pursue his passion for kitesurfing and foiling. Aspen and Noosa occupied most of his time in the last decade of his life, until the Covid-19 lockdown kept him in Queenstown.

“He was extraordinarily fit and health conscious,” Spary said, which made his death after a kitesurfing session north of Kapiti all the more unexpected.

The news shocked the town and his memorial service, held at Amisfield Winery and Bistro near his Lake Hayes home, was attended by hundreds. Doherty said the diversity of people there testified to Martin’s interests and reputation, ranging from a French kitesurfer to “the business glitz of Queenstown and Auckland, and the mayor”. It was a broad cross-section of the community.

“Queenstown has always had a reputation for being an overnight developer, people who walk in, quid and walk out, and leave a mess,” Doherty said. “He was in it for the long haul.”

“He will be missed by the city, as will his family,” Spary said.

Martin is survived by his wife Suzanna and their 14-year-old twins, Tom and Zara.


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