Taking hold of destiny

POSITIVE:  Ru Collin of Kono Horticulture, addresses the Motueka meeting.
POSITIVE: Ru Collin of Kono Horticulture, addresses the Motueka meeting.

Given that I'd just sat through a four hour meeting, I came away from Wednesday's "Toward 2030: A Better Future for Motueka" economic summit surprisingly energised.

The eight speakers had all been interesting and the large crowd was engaged and positive but, more than that, I was wondering if I had just witnessed a tipping point for Motueka. Was this the moment when the town started to take hold of its own collective destiny?

Motueka has long had a chip on its shoulder. For so long the poor, rural cousin to Nelson, it has more recently been eclipsed by the growth of Richmond. Recent figures showing Richmond's retail growth rate topping the country have reinforced the recent stream of positive economic news for Richmond.

I've sat through too many meetings where people complain about the Richmond-centric nature of Tasman district, which supposedly sees Motueka's needs left out in the cold. But apart from a presentation from Counsellor Judene Edgar about how the council is becoming more business-friendly, there was no talk of the council at the forum. Instead, there was a sense that if Motueka is to remake itself to thrive into the next generation, then the town needs to go it alone.

Central government has been telling local government to focus on core services and ratepayers have been telling it to cut debt and slow rates growth, and the logical result of this squeeze from above and below has been the council making it clear that it will no longer be funding much in the way of community development.

Into the breach have stepped people who see the necessity - and the opportunity - for Motueka to be proactive about development, because it is pretty clear that no outside agency is going to bother.

I was struck by both the size of the crowd and the fact that many key players were either presenting or in the audience: Talleys, Kono, Wilsons Abel Tasman, Our Town Motueka, iwi, landlords, business owners, and community activists. The crowd was younger than usual and it was clear that lots of them had given up half a day from work - this was not the retired brigade common at day time meetings.

Perhaps that is one explanation for the positive tone in the room. The speakers were generally optimistic for Motueka's future, and pointed to the area's natural advantages: fertile soils, plentiful water, and a temperate climate make for the best tasting apples in the world, according to pipfruit grower and marketer David Easton. Kono's general manager Ru Collin agreed, but with a wider horticultural focus and the outsider's perspective of someone whose career has mostly been in Hawkes Bay.

Compared to that region, Collin said he was struck by the high number of foreign-born residents and the high level of skill they have brought with them. Attracted by the climate, scenery, and lifestyle, such people were an under-utilised resource, he said. I looked around the room and took note of several such people that I knew. They may have moved to Motueka for the lifestyle, leaving behind high-flying careers, but that doesn't mean that we can't tap into their skills to help drive Motueka forward.

A common theme from the business leaders speaking was that the endless petty distinctions we make about our place in the world are meaningless and largely unhelpful when we are trying to get the world's attention. We have a great story to tell in terms of linking our spectacular scenery with a clean, green, sustainable environment in which to produce food, and it makes sense for us to piggyback on the brand recognition Nelson already has, whether for seafood, apples or aromatic wines.

Wilsons Abel Tasman head Darryl Wilson recalled being in the United States to market the Abel Tasman National Park and seeing a map of New Zealand that did not include Nelson. When you are literally trying to get Nelson on the map, making a distinction between Nelson and Tasman only blurs the focus.

Wilson, who in his long career as a tourism leader has sat on more committees than anyone should have to, also made a plea for fewer committees of the "10 people meeting every third Tuesday" variety and more buy in to the institutions we already have.

Labour shortages were an issue for all the employers who spoke, and the demographic trends are not in our favour. Motueka, like so many rural towns, is hollowed out of working-age people, and so calls for a training institute for primary industries were well-received. I was interested that Debbie Smith, who employs 35 people at her Bays Apparelmaster linen company, said her biggest frustration was finding dependable, fit people who want to work and that she, like the orchardists, had turned to the Pacific Islands to find workers.

I understand why that is a solution for each employer, but long term we should be finding ways to attract residents who will stay and invest in the town. Despite the many positives of the RSE workers, they are not going to be raising children in Motueka who will remain and start businesses here, helping the town to thrive in 2030.

The overall message was that while Motueka enjoys many strengths, we have to leverage off them to build growth rather than looking for a magic bullet.

Now the key is people stepping up to take the ideas, and the town, forward.

The Nelson Mail