Mataura: a community transformed

Jo Brand, former Community Development Worker, says Mataura was “limping along and disconnected”. This was partly due to the shut-down of various industries over the years, resulting in people moving away to find work and to access a better range of facilities. A lot of property was owned by absentee owners and wasn’t looked after well. Jo adds says that “all the numbers were terrible”, according to a 2008 study done by Public Health South (Southern District Health Board). Mataura also had the lowest decile school in Southland, only one out of five kids were school ready at age 5 and the crime statistics were less than ideal.

Shared local visions drive action and change

Tamariki at Mataura Primary

Government agencies were concerned about Mataura and were going to meet to decide what to do, but then they realised that the locals were already creating a way forward. The town had already formed a taskforce and started working with Inspiring Communities.

Alan Taylor, Chair of the Community Board, stresses that “there is always a need for a common vision”. So, the process started with a community consultation workshop. Everyone got together to talk about what they wanted in Mataura. “We started with celebrating and identifying who Mataura is first. That we’re not buying into what everyone else was telling us we were or weren’t” says Jo.

The residents created lists of what they wanted to see in the town and 70% of the projects on those lists have now been completed, even ones Jo never thought would succeed. Having more than one cafe in a town of 1,500 people didn’t seem realistic, but they now have two independent cafes as well as a Four Square and a fish and chip shop.

Using existing strengths and assets

Jo believes “the skillset was always there from the people. It just needed encouragement”. Many of the town’s projects have been ones of restoration. The Mataura Museum was a struggling entity until a group of volunteers worked with Gore District Council to restore the building. They made it interactive and modern, relevant and local. On opening, in 2015, it won Best Museum Project Award at the NZ Museum Awards and one of the volunteers travelled to a Heritage conference in Croatia to speak about the project.

Mataura Museum volunteers
Mataura Museum volunteers

The old town hall was restored and there is also a newer community centre, which is a real focal point for the community.

Eleanor Ranstead, the current Community Development Coordinator, has witnessed the extraordinary transformation of the town in her 20 or so years in the area: “It has a lot of hope”. She says the focus is now on building the capacity of community groups and people. The list of programmes, activities and resources the town now offers is extensive: a Mens’ Shed, Strengthening Families, community lunches, Toddler Time, the Bunker Youth Centre, Mind Matters, an Al-Anon group and a suicide prevention group, activities at four different churches and so much more.

“What’s really emerged is not so much leaders. It’s that people have embraced other people’s strengths. People recognise and understand that you don’t have to be the expert at everything. But everybody has an expertise in something. That’s what we do differently now” says Jo.

Many people, groups and sectors working together

Mataura was awarded a Community Development Scheme grant by the Department of Internal Affairs. The community has also worked with Inspiring Communities on a regular basis and has brought Jim Diers to town to do workshops on several occasions. Gore District Council has been another important partner in the town’s development.

Working collaboratively is something that the town’s people have got better at over time. “Now we say ‘Here’s what we want to do. Who do we need to help us get that?’” says Jo. “To encourage involvement from the community is huge. And working with local government is important” adds Alan.

Working adaptively, learning informs planning and action

There has been a lot of learning along the way. “It was a journey of understanding what people needed” Jo says. “The community gardens didn’t work at first. They realised they had to charge money because no-one would come if it was free”.

Barbara Cunningham is responsible for the community gardens. The project expanded further when she realised that the Meals on Wheels programme was using frozen meals from Gore. She took over the contract and started delivering fresh food, using produce from the garden. The service now runs five days a week.

Barbara Cunningham wins 2016 ANZAC of the year
Barbara Cunningham wins 2016 ANZAC of the year

Other projects include demolishing derelict buildings and putting in parks and recreation areas, building a sensory garden and an outdoor gym circuit and creating a new childcare centre which fits the needs of the local parents, many of whom do shift work. The primary school roll is up by about 30 and they’ve just established a bilingual class.

Mataura Marae sat incomplete for about 30 years, after a number of setbacks prevented renovations taking place. Work finally restarted in 2017. The wharenui is now finished and the plan is to have gardens and possibly a café, with wheelchair accessibility and a family friendly atmosphere.

These projects are not only important to Mataura. Gore District Council wants to retain Mataura as a destination point, so Southlanders (and others) stop and visit.

The population is on the rise and house prices are increasing, but are still affordable, which makes it a very attractive location. And business is booming! Eleanor estimates that there are now 80 – 100 businesses operating in the town. The townspeople think local before buying further afield and some businesses that might have closed down have been bought and run by other locals.

Jo captures Mataura’s community spirit well when she says “I remember my Great Grandmother telling us ‘just do what you can to help others: it doesn’t matter if it seems small to you’. I think that sort of sums up why Mataura is what it is”.

Mataura Rugby Club Day
Mataura Rugby Club Day

Timing is everything – synchronicities in Mataura.

Back in 2007, community leaders of the Southland town of Mataura had received some concerning research about the health of the community and rallied the locals to come together to do something about it.
At about the same time, the Community Trust of Southland (CToS) Chief Executive, John Prendergast, had begun to champion ideas of community-led development following a study tour to Canada led by Mary-Jane Rivers, who later founded Inspiring Communities. With support from CToS, the Mataura Taskforce was born.

Read more; Timing is Everything – Synchronicities in Mataura

Catalysing Community Connections: How neighbours day brought locals to school and beyond.

As part of the celebration of Neighbours Day 2011 Mataura School’s senior class (Year 6) wrote an invitation to households neighbouring the school inviting them to celebrate Neighbours Day at a morning tea at the school.
The children hand delivered the invitations and prepared scones and other baking to host their neighbours in the community room at the school. Later, school Principal Susan Dennison said that she could not believe how many people turned up, ‘‘I was teaching so by the time I got there, honestly the room was full — absolutely chocker,’’

Read Catalysing community connections – how neighbours day brought locals to the school

The Mataura Youth Trust

“I want a place that children came come and be children.”
This was the dream of Garry Coates, spokesman for the Mataura Youth Trust, in 2011.


Read more; Mataura Youth Trust

Mataura Family Fun Day

Mataura Family Fun Day emerged from several Mataura Gala Days which had been organised by the Taskforce Events group. These gala days were improving outcomes each time but public feedback on the events was mixed.
Following a suggestion that the groups involved combine to collaboratively plan and execute the Gala together led to the renewed Mataura Family Fun Day  being held in March 2012 with some pleasing results

Read Mataura Family Fun Day

Matariki weaves its magic in Mataura

Finding common ground through the celebration of Matariki recognised the unique aspects of Mataura, and grew trust and respect across formally polarised local groups, including gang members and school teachers.
Read Matariki 2011

Mataura Community Garden – growing vegetables and a proud reputation

The seeds of this project were literally planted in the Spring of 2009 and by 2012 there was an amazing, flourishing community garden that not only met its goal each week during seasonal production, but has developed into much more.

Read the full story here: getting a reputation- mataura community garden