Mitre 10 Mega pulls sponsorship for Blenheim's only bus

When a town only has one bus, it's kind of a big deal to have it threatened.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ

When a town only has one bus, it's kind of a big deal to have it threatened.

Blenheim's only bus has been doing laps of the town in its distinctive orange peel for close to a decade, but it faces an uncertain future.

The ratepayer-funded service has been propped up by Mitre 10 Mega since 2007, hence the colour scheme, but the company has decided to pull its sponsorship.

The Marlborough District Council had already decided to review the beleaguered service when it found out the news on Monday.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett said the announcement came out of the blue. 

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Only days before, the council had voted to review all aspects of the service over the next 12 months to improve it, including looking at fares, and the possibility of extending routes to other centres. 

The council would seek alternative sponsors so they could press ahead with their plans, Leggett said. 

"If we are going to have a bus service, it needs to have sponsorship of some sort," he said. 

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"It's just a matter of making sure that we go out and see what's available. I'd like to think that we can keep the service going." 

The council's contract with Mitre 10 Mega Marlborough expires at the end of February next year.

Mitre 10 Mega store owner David Hawtin said the company was focusing on other sponsorship opportunities in the community, but he could not reveal what they were yet. 

They had been spending a third of their annual sponsorship money on the bus, and he believed it had cost them about $300,000 in total. 

"[We decided] to let the council do their own thing from now on," Hawtin said.

The council was already looking at alternatives, Leggett said. 

Councillor Jenny Andrews, who helped set up the service in 2005, said it was "very sad" to lose the sponsorship and she would be pushing hard to keep the bus going. 

Older people who could no longer drive and were unable to walk to where they needed to get to would be hit hard if the bus service ground to a halt. 

"Age defeats us, if not mentally all the time then physically," she said. 

"There are elderly people who are locked into their homes."

The bus service had two 30-minute routes, around northern and southern Blenheim, and it cost $2 for adults to ride. 

According to a council report, 58 per cent of passengers were SuperGold card users, aged 65 and over, 36 per cent bought adult tickets, and only 6 per cent of passengers were children or students. 

There would be no question of a town the size of Blenheim having a bus service elsewhere in the world, Andrews said. 

Last financial year the cost of the council's contract with bus company Ritchies was about $150,000.

However, the bus took in $17,294 in fares, and received a government subsidy of about $60,000, as well as the $35,000 sponsorship from Mitre10 Mega. 

Ratepayers covered the remaining $41,398. 

Andrews and Leggett both said they were grateful to Mitre 10 for their years of support. 

The bus, with its Mitre 10 Mega colours, had become very recognisable around town, Leggett said. 

Council finance and information officer David Craig said at an assets and services committee meeting on Thursday, prior to the announcement, the council needed to work out how to boost the bus' popularity. 

"We need to make it commercially viable at its busiest time, or it will struggle," Craig said. 

Last financial year about 25,500 people rode the bus, whereas in the previous year that number was closer to 27,000. 

The committee voted in favour of undertaking a full year-long review of the service, including fares and routes. 

An annual report on the service said the possibility of a Renwick bus had been discussed with community groups. 

Councillor Cynthia Brooks said after Mitre 10 Mega's announcement she still wanted the community to be consulted about having a Woodbourne and Renwick bus route. 

"We would like to have the community involved in the process of looking at one, but it would probably be a smaller vehicle and a less regular service." 

The council also received requests for services to Picton and Woodbourne, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, Marlborough Airport, Seddon and Spring Creek, the report said. 

Craig said after the meeting the current bus timetable meant it did not attract commuter traffic. Extending the hours and having a smaller bus was a possibility. 

 - The Marlborough Express

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