Punching above its weight: The revitalisation of Reefton.
Similar to many other small towns across Aotearoa, the people of the West Coast township of Reefton have been working hard to revive their town and restore not just its history but its future as well. In early 2019, key economic indicators demonstrated that what locals had intuitively felt was indeed happening: by March, the GDP in Reefton had grown by 14.6% and its labour market had grown by 14.5%, compared to the national average of 3% and 1.9%.
The decades of work to revive their town’s fortunes were paying off!
Reefton’s beautifully restored shop fronts on the main street.
A real boomtown during the heydays of hard rock underground gold and subsequent coal mining (with 2,000,000oz of gold extracted between 1870 and 1951!), Reefton, like many small regional towns, went into a significant decline during the last decades of the 20th century, struggling with a changing economy and increased privatisation. The closure of major Government departments such as the New Zealand Forest Service and Railways resulted in a drastic shortage of local work opportunities and consequent rise in unemployment in the area.
But Reefton’s locals are fiercely loyal to their place and have worked together to transform Reefton not only into a popular tourist destination, but also attractive to entrepreneurial investors and new residents seeking a lifestyle change.
Shared local vision grows collaborative local leadership
The revitalisation of Reefton into a contemporary, progressive town can be attributed to a mix of external backing and community-led initiatives, as well as the dedication of passionate individuals, who together have produced remarkable outcomes for their town. In his position as manager for the Department of Conservation, Paul Thomas moved to Reefton in 1990 and saw the potential of Reefton’s unique location and history despite its then rather impoverished state. He’s been a hard-working advocate for the town ever since: Paul was part of the first core group of locals pushing for change, seeing an opportunity to leverage Reefton’s unique environment and rich heritage history. Proudly known locally as the “Town of Light”, many people may not realise that the Reefton was actually the first town in the Southern Hemisphere to have a public and reticulated supply of electricity in 1888, even before London and New York!
Reefton’s rich heritage is ever present.
Action Builds Westport Community
What started as a dream for a few members of the Buller Cycling Club to make biking more accessible in Westport has, over seven years, morphed into a full-scale community supported initiative. The project includes eight kilometers of cycle and walking tracks, boardwalks and bridges. Powered by over 15,000 volunteer hours, all sectors of the community have united under a shared local vision, driving positive change for their town. And they’re not stopping there.
“What we’ve learned is that the process of doing what we’ve done has given the people of Westport a new perspective on the town. That has become more of a driving force for us” – Glenn Irving, Buller Cycling Club
Relying entirely on the existing strengths and assets within the town, they borrowed the diggers, compactors, chainsaws and tractors necessary to clear the mountains of gorse, plant trees and develop the tracks that now grace the Kawatiri Beach Reserve.
Local businesses have stepped up in support. When the community came together to construct a 200m long boardwalk as part of the Kawatiri River Trail, the local Mitre 10 donated $15,000 worth of materials, engineers donated resources and time, and one of the local cafes delivered lunch for the volunteers every day for two months.
The construction of the boardwalk began just one week after the closure of the Holcim Cement Plant, one of the biggest employers in the town. At a time of hardship for the community, this project proved incredibly unifying and positive, and many of those who lost their jobs were able to volunteer their time.
A key element to long-term success has been keeping it fun and not getting bogged down with meetings and procedure. The organising team have two meetings a year. The rest is worked out while building the tracks or over the phone.
The Buller District Council has been increasingly supportive as it has built a relationship of trust with the Buller Cycling Club that now allows for more flexibility and ease of access to resources. “The Council has realised that making life easy for us is beneficial for everyone,” says Glenn Irving of the Buller Cycling Club. “The first time I applied to get consent to put a sign up on a track I had to pay $600 and do heaps of paperwork. Now when we need building consent, I just send an email, it costs nothing and we can get started in a week.”
The long term goal is to reconnect the town of Westport with the Buller River which is cut off by an underutilised railway line. Glenn is already forging relationships with Kiwirail and the Harbour to make this dream a reality.
“People have seen that we can get things done for ourselves, that we have the expertise within our group to do it, and that the people involved are prepared to do some hard work to make some pretty cool changes to our town” – Glenn Irving
In the meantime, they’ve received permission to construct a fishing platform on an old cattle wharf on the lagoon. The main wharf at Westport has been closed for access and the new platform will open up fishing as a family activity again.
A true example of community-led development in action, the drive of the Buller Cycling Club has harnessed the energy of the community, expanding the sense of what changes are possible in their town.
Blackball: Embracing Opportunity
The town of Blackball is stepping up to meet the opportunities predicted to come from the new Paparoa Track and Pike29 Memorial Track between Blackball and Punakaiki. The latest addition to New Zealand’s Great Walks, this track is expected to attract 6000 people per year when it opens in 2019.
Since the announcement of the new track in 2015, the residents of Blackball – a town of 300 – have spent the last two years working with the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) knitting together a unified outlook and building strategic relationships with national and local authorities. Determined to keep the vision and values of the local community at the heart of decisions for the town as tourism grows, Blackball has entered into a partnership for community-led development with DIA. With DIA offering five years of support, the residents plan to use this opportunity to achieve significant community-driven change in their town.
“The partnership is less about funding and more about working together as a community with common goals and aspirations” – Cynthia Robins, member of the Steering Committee
Building diverse and collaborative local leadership
A volunteer Steering Committee formed after an inspirational workshop co-hosted by Inspiring Communities and neighbourhood-building champion Jim Diers. While leaders in their own right, they will be the first to say that it is the community that leads change in Blackball. The Committee forges strategic relationships, tackles roadblocks to progress, and brings the community together when it’s time for action.
Using shared local visions to drive action and change
The residents of Blackball see their community as their greatest strength. They use town meetings, postal and online surveys, door-knocking and anonymous voting ballots placed in local businesses to ensure that every single resident of the town has an opportunity to put forward ideas and participate in decisions. At no point in the idea development or decision-making process is there a single leader or group making decisions on behalf of everyone else.
“We try very hard not to be a benign dictatorship. We open the dialogues with the right organisations and advocate for the community of Blackball to make things happen” – Cynthia Robins
Many people, groups and sectors working together
For a period of four months, the Committee met every week with representatives from DOC, DIA, Development West Coast, Grey District Council and Tai Poutini Polytech, forging strong alliances and planning a community open day. Roadblocks are a natural part of any development project and these relationships are key to gaining outcomes.
Over the last two years, the residents of Blackball have become fully engaged in being part of the change they want to see in their town.
“The community leads. The Committee is just there holding all the different strings but it is the community that pulls the reins” – Cynthia Robins
Embracing the new opportunities offered through their partnership with DIA, the town is determined to learn from the support they will receive over the next five years so that they emerge fully empowered to create the changes they want for their community.