By South Waikato Mayor, Neil Sinclair
A truly multi-cultural District the South Waikato is right in the centre of the North Island between Hamilton Rotorua and Taupo. We are home to 23,000 people, of which about 30% are Maori and 11% Pacific Island. We are a young district, our main town, Tokoroa, was established in the 1950s when the paper mill at Kinlieth was built. Now we are 50% farming 50% forestry.
Yes we had a tough image, an image that unfortunately lives today. We are however a proud caring compassionate community. I know, I was a dentist for 40 years. We have the lowest crime statistics for the Bay of Plenty and my towns are almost devoid of any graffiti. But like all rural New Zealand towns we are looking at a decline in population and an aging population. We have, additionally, high youth unemployment, some poor housing stock and we are generally regarded as being a low socio economic district. It’s not an exciting picture, so why are we so confident about our district and our towns?
Councils and communities in general have to recognise their situation, accept who they are and then they can work out just what they have to do to create change. Identify your local strengths.
For us it is that we have a particularly caring, resilient community. In 2004, when I first became Mayor, through a series of circumstances I, with many others, stood on an empty section of Council land on a Thursday evening. By Sunday lunch time I was opening a children’s park on that land, with a sound shell, flying fox, BBQ, unique play equipment, swings, and a graffiti board. All done by the community. All manner of people were involved in the construction; clubs, groups, individuals, businesses, groups of people who fed us. $20,000 was raised, not a dollar from Council. Looking back now not even a resource consent! All done in 48 hours.
So if the community were going to be the doers then it would require an innovative, imaginative, courageous council to work with them and harness that spirit. High youth unemployment was one of the big concerns then. Council knew education was the way forward so we instituted the Mayoral Scholarship. We have great schools producing very talented individuals. Our town, because of the mill has many high-quality engineering firms; many exporting,all calling for trained staff. Council looked at the Otorohanga jobs project and decided not to copy but upgrade it. Council put $90,000 into the development of a Trade Training Centre and instructed that the best of lathes be bought. If we believed in our youth, then they needed the best equipment. Give them second hand gear and that will be how they think we feel about them.
A group of the leaders from those engineering firms came together and set the syllabus around what they wanted as employers.The Waiariki Polytec then came on board as the Industry Training Organisation – with our lathes and industry-set syllabus. It has set the bench mark for Trade Training schemes.
We now have engineering, auto engineering, welding, horticulture and farming training. The job uptake by our students is 97%. They know if they stay home and don’t attend someone is ready to take their place.
I have many more examples: Local Communities like mine have that community determination; Councils like mine have the ability to create partnerships with industry, such as what we did with Fonterra’s new $385 million milk drier, the Blue Pacific Minerals expansion, John Deere opening an engineering factory. There is the 50,000 hectares of forestry conversions that have been done using best farming practices and have brought more than 90 new families into the District.
So we can do, but how do we get Central Government to recognise that sub regional growth is taking place? Small communities like mine are making things happen because we have to if we are to maintain that which we treasure. I have had only one Cabinet Minster visit – he was in and out for the opening of the rail hub. Regional Growth they say is exploding but they mean Hamilton. We need recognition of sub-regional needs.
Encourage Local Councils like mine to be brave, courageous with their innovation and imagination. Encourage us, don’t wait and then say congratulations. As always finance is the biggie. Most of what we have done took more time than it should have as we had to justify every penny. We aren’t rich – far from it – so caution was the message, and frankly sometimes courage. We can do. Rural New Zealand can do, we all need to think local and let local do.