Palmerston North has forgiven John Cleese but it would quite like the rest of New Zealand to forget him, or at least what he said about the place.
The British comedian famously declared after a visit in 2006: "If you ever want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick."
"He was sick and upset," says Destination Manawatu's projects manager Julie O'Brien. "We've moved on."
Maybe so, but Palmerston North's image problem hasn't. And it's got so bad almost $300,000 is about to be thrown at persuading everyone else that it's a great place to live and visit. The money will be spent mostly on various media interventions with Destination Manawatu chief executive Lance Bickford wanting the city to get its act together and "get smarter about telling its stories".
The problem, according to Destination Manawatu, is that people had formed their impressions based on visits made years ago and had never come back. But people who had visited recently were "just blown away".
"Cities change. It's not the same place people knew when they went to university here 20 years ago, and once people get here, they're converted."
O'Brien, initially reluctant to list the city's faults until informed she was speaking to a Hamiltonian, admitted people are inclined to believe the city is boring, that there's nothing to do and the weather's always bad. "Exactly the same stuff they say about Hamilton."
Not any more. Hamilton-based advertising and marketing expert Chris Williams, who has played a large role in changing perceptions of the Waikato city, says it's all about the product. Hamilton, he believes, has long overcome its cow-town image by growing up, looking better and bringing great events to town that have "put the city on the map".
Willliams' advice to Palmerston North – where he lived for more than four years – is to ensure there's real substance behind any campaign.
"I think it's got a hill to climb, and one that was far bigger than Hamilton's."
He says there have to be better reasons than O'Brien's top two attractions to go there. She suggests the rugby museum and standing under a wind turbine. Williams says all that does is "remind you that it's freaking windy there".
The money for Palmy's image problem is being funded by the council and Destination Manawatu. Councillor Pat Kelly was last week reported as being hesitant about the project.
"One is basically hopeful that we might get it right this time," he said.
'GAPING CHASM' BETWEEN PERCEPTION, REALITY
Much-maligned Palmerston North has its share of critics but the editor of the city's paper, the Manawatu Standard, is standing up for his adopted home.
Former Aucklander Michael Cummings, who wrote the John Cleese slamming Palmerston North story when he was a reporter at the Standard in 2006, says there's a "gaping chasm" between perception and reality.
"We didn't realise at the time how much attention the story would get, and we certainly didn't think anyone would take Cleese seriously.
"But I guess people like to have their prejudices reaffirmed, so his comments fuelled the myth that Palmerston North is boring."
The truth, Cummings says, is that Palmerston North has blossomed into a vibrant, innovative city with a thriving arts, cultural and hospitality scene.
"It's a city with soul, and a place that is finally throwing off the shackles of ignorant, ill-informed perceptions."
Cummings attended Cleese's performance in Palmerston North, and says the comic legend was glowing in his praise of the city and its people at the end of the show.
"So I don't think he exactly oozes credibility. If you're not sure which version to believe, come for a visit and find out for yourself. You'll arrive with the myth and leave with the reality."
Top things to do in Palmerston North according to Destination Manawatu's Julie O'Brien
1. Go to The New Zealand Rugby Museum
2. Stand under a wind turbine in the Ruahine or Tararua Ranges
3. Visit the Manawatu Gorge
4. See the godwits at Foxton Beach
5. Shop at the bigger and better Plaza complex
6. Take in the world-renowned Dugald McKenzie Rose Garden
7. Visit Mt Cleese – a hillock at the Palmerston North tip named in honour of a certain comedian
- Sunday Star Times
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