A real heart could be makings of Motueka

When I first heard about Vision Motueka's proposal for a new town hub in Motueka, my first thought was "Yeah, right. Good luck, guys."

The embryonic plan calls for many of the town's major facilities, including a library, i-Site and council service centre, to be clustered together, probably in Decks Reserve.

Vision Motueka is a new group, formally established in April, and I was hard-pressed to imagine how they could succeed in driving this proposal when so many have stumbled before them.

But after spending a long time talking to the group's founder and co-ordinator, David Armstrong, I'm inspired by the possibilities of having a real town centre in Motueka.

Before I lived here, I lived in Oakland, California, a city that is overshadowed by San Francisco, just a bridge away.

Gertrude Stein's famous quote, "There is no there there", referred to Oakland, and people searching for the heart of Motueka could easily feel the same.

Several times a week, confused-looking tourists walk into my office at the Nelson Mail in Motueka's High St and ask where they can find a post office, information centre or a phone book. The post office part is usually because we have the word "mail" in our awning sign, but the confusion is understandable.

As David said, it would be easy for a tourist, especially one driving alone, to miss the small sign pointing off High St to the i-Site in a side street.

Currently, the library is in Pah St, the i-Site in Wallace St, the Department of Conservation's well-camouflaged visitor centre, tucked behind bushes like a nocturnal kiwi, is 2 kilometres down High St from the town centre, the Recreation Centre is also 2km away and down a side street and the Tasman District Council service centre is hidden in a cul-de-sac that leads to the back of the New World supermarket.

Even though Motueka is small enough that you can park once and walk to take care of most of your business, the scattered locations don't make for pedestrian or cyclist convenience.

And that's just for locals. For a town whose summer lifeblood is tourism, the random distribution of the key services is maddening.

It looks as if there has been no town planning at all. Motueka is one of the worst examples of state highway strip development in the country. I grew up in Oamaru and my sister lives in Ashburton, and so I know my provincial town State Highway 1 crawls well.

Imagine how attractive, convenient and synergistic a well-planned town hub could be. Urban design research shows how towns benefit economically by bringing clusters of people together. Proximity sparks connections, creativity and business, as well as friendship and community spirit.

I know what you're thinking. I can see the eye-rolling going on over your coffee and paper right now. The proposal is too ambitious, too hard, too expensive. Who will pay? Not me, the council can't afford it.

That is exactly the reaction David expects and it was also the reason he formed Vision Motueka.

As the founder of and reporter for Motueka Online, he had sat through far too many community meetings, often next to me, where the naysayers would dominate debate.

"The status quo group were winning. I felt that progressive people needed a group of their own," he said.

The group has already spent time debating how to respond to the do-nothing arguments they know they will hear.

David said the first response was to say that Motueka residents of his age - he moved here from Christchurch in 2009 to retire - would not enjoy the town as it is now had previous generations not been prepared to spend on facilities. "If we spend nothing, the town will fizzle out in 20 years."

The second response is that not everything is about rates. Vision Motueka is not an arm of the council and a lot of what it would like to do will not involve council funding. It is far too early in the planning stages to say how much such a proposal would cost or where the funds would come from.

As Tasman Mayor Richard Kempthorne, a supporter of Vision Motueka, told David, the Government took the opportunity of the recent local government conference to make it clear that such visionary thinking is not the role of local councils. They are to stick to their knitting of core infrastructure.

That is a message the Tasman District Council has heeded well. David compared the council's 10-year plan for Motueka to that of Tamahere, near Hamilton, whose 10-year plan offers a bold vision of what it would like the community to look like in 10 years.

But all David could find in the Tasman District Council plan were budget lines to "put a floodgate there, fix a drain there. The only vision is to make the town a little drier," he said.

He is under no illusions that it will not be easy, but he has assembled a seed committee of people involved in key community groups and, although he has no desire to be a leader and is not charismatic in the usual sense of the word, the power of his ideas is inspirational.

Vision Motueka plans a community meeting to gather input of what people would like to see in the town hub.

He points to Kaitaia's recently opened community hub, Te Ahu, (teahu.org.nz) and notes that it took eight years for that project to come to fruition. The economy is cyclical. We won't be in recession for the next decade, and as the Ruby Bay bypass showed, when money is available, it goes to the community that already has a plan and support. Nelson's major roading project, dogged by infighting, missed out.

I love Motueka, but it is more for the community and the surrounding areas than the physical heart. Motueka doesn't suck, but it does have a vision vacuum.