Done with being done to: Meremere’s journey to confident local leadership
Located about halfway between Auckland and Hamilton, just off the State Highway 1, the township of Meremere had struggled to revive its heyday’s spark after the Meremere power plant shut down in 1991 and many residents lost their employment. A sense of feeling forgotten and cut-off created frustration among the residents, and for several years, initiatives by different providers and ‘outside’ organisations had only temporary effects – one sentiment shared by the community was that they felt “done with being done to”.
Growing Collaborative Local leadership
With initial support from the local Council, the Ministry of Social Development, and the Department of Internal Affairs, a group of local residents took matters into their own hands and formed the Meremere Community Development Group in 2011. Thanks some initial grass roots funding like the Community Organisation Grants Scheme (COGS), the group gained momentum and led their first own community projects – these successes built the foundation and vision that then led to the establishment of the Meremere Community Development Committee Inc. in 2013.
Ben Brown, Secretary of the Development Committee, describes the committee as a core group of people that acts as “a sort of super-glue” for the community: “We look after the community-led, the community-based stuff, we help out with people’s community development aspirations.” Establishing this group and voicing the community’s hopes and needs were among the key first steps for the locals to step into their own power to activate change in Meremere.
Small Village, Big Vision
Te Kowhai is a small village north west of Hamilton. There’s a green grocer, a dairy and a take-away which is only open three nights a week for two hours.
But behind this seemingly small façade is a big history, a strong community heart and a quiet determination to make Te Kowhai an even better place.
Made up of around 720 households, Te Kowhai is a rural community of largely lifestyle blocks and farming families. At the heart of the village is a thriving community kindergarten and primary school for the village’s 321 students which features state of the art classrooms with activity-based learning spaces, and a digital strategy target of 1:1 device:child ratio.
A unique feature of Te Kowhai is that, unlike many other semi-rural areas within the greater Waikato, the village is growing – and fast.
Connecting Te Kowhai to the Waikato District Council and its wider community is a small group of dedicated residents and local business owners who have formed the Te Kowhai Community Group. Chaired by Daryl Smart, the group’s objectives are to actively enhance lifestyle and amenities in the area.
This small group of locals meet monthly to progress key local projects, all managed voluntarily, and funded by donations and various public and private grants. They’ve made some huge improvements to the area over recent years, including:
- Installation of flashing speed alert lights to slow traffic around the school.
- Undergrounding power and telephone lines in the village.
- An extension and modernisation of the community hall.
- Re-establishment of native trees (especially kowhai) throughout the village, its parks and gullies.
- The establishment of a cricket ground.
- School bus pick-ups for nearby high schools.
One of the Village’s most significant projects to date has been the reclamation and regeneration of the Te Otamanui Lagoon – a wonderful, but hidden asset! Featuring a 60 acre lake with a 3kilometre long gully, the lagoon has been a key focus for some long-term thinking and action. Keen to enhance the lagoon and future-proof local walking and leisure requirements for the next 100 years, locals developed a plan that initially seemed exceedingly ambitious. Now however, it looks imminently achievable.
Core to the vision for Te Otamanui is a 6-10 kilometre walkway, starting in the centre of the village and following the Te Kowhai Stream and Te Otamanui Lagoon to the Waipa River, lined by avenues of flowering Kowhai. The Te Kowhai community has led the walkway’s development, with progress depending entirely on the generosity and goodwill of the many landowners, and sheer grunt work of local community groups and volunteers.
In March 2015, a second section of the Lagoon walkway was opened to the public. Local resident (and driving force behind the project) Graham McBride originally believed that the walkway wouldn’t be completed in his lifetime but is having to fast readjust his views!
Upgrading the area’s broadband capability is another current priority for Te Kowhai.
To discuss what could be done, a special project group was brought together that included representation from the local retirement village, school, businesses and local residents. In talking together, the group realised there was a hardware problem with their infrastructure causing severe connection problems for everyone accessing the internet. Talking and working together on an upgrade proposal meant the group was able to identify the size of the problem and approach the big companies to help Te Kowhai do something about it.
As a result, Chorus have come forward to upgrade the area’s IT, meaning the central village will have access to VDSL-speed broadband. There are ongoing plans to improve access into adjoining rural areas also.
Pivotal to these big successes for this tiny village is the community’s ability to communicate with residents. Every two months the district produces a newsletter which is funded by advertising from local small businesses and voluntarily edited and produced by Te Kowhai Community group member and local resident Amanda Schaake. Amanda notes just how important the newsletter has been their community’s progress.
“We use the newsletter to let people know about the Te Kowhai Community Group’s projects and what’s happening. The more involved people are, the stronger our community will be so we try to bring people together as much as we can through working bees, progress meetings, and Community Group events. The newsletter and its email circulation list are critical tools to help us reach people.” With more than 120 residents now connected via the Neighbourly website, new online ways for Te Kowhai residents to connect and engage with each other emerging too.
With such a strong sense of community spirit and belief in what’s possible– this small village can only continue to achieve big things.
by Amanda Schaake, Editor Te Kowhai News
For more information take a look at the Te Kowhai Community Group’s Facebook page: