Rolleston: Time to take it seriously
Something must be happening in a town that has gone from just one primary school to five primaries and a secondary school in about as many years. Rolleston has a future, as John McCrone discovers.
It is obligatory to mention the road-side sign that for many years gave everybody driving by a hearty chuckle. "Rolleston: The town of the future."
In the 1970s, Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk thought the sleepy rail junction village of 1000 people would be a great place for a state-built satellite town of 50,000 to 80,000. Another Porirua or Otara.
Christchurch was beginning to bust its green belt urban limit. Rolleston could be a second city which would siphon off that growth pressure.
A change of government saw the idea shelved. But for many years – promoted by local developers – the "town of the future" sign stood proud and ironic at the state highway turn-off, until someone quietly took it down.
* Ports go head on in battle for container traffic
* Rolleston's Izone industrial park fast-tracks land development by two years
* Rolleston running out of residential land
* Ambitious plan to develop Rolleston
Today, however, Rolleston is no longer anyone's joke.
Instead, driven by a post-quake need for new housing, and also a surprise twist where Rolleston has become the focus of a freight-forwarding battle between the South Island ports, it is undergoing crazy growth – officially the fastest expanding small town in the country.
The developers can't carve out new lots quick enough. Down at Faringdon, one of a number of sprawling subdivisions, salesman Brian Mason says out of 1000 sections, he only has about 15 left.
Every stage of the four-year-old development is being snapped up as soon as it is released, Mason says. "People love the rural feel here. They say how spacious and safe it is. Yet Christchurch is right on the doorstep."
At the offices of Selwyn District Council, Deputy Mayor Sarah Walters says Rolleston's pace of growth is indeed confounding all expectations.
It is hard for outsiders too appreciate just how fast the town is whizzing along, Walters says. "Which makes it a great success story on one level, but an interesting dynamic, an interesting challenge, on other levels," she adds, mixing a groan with the smile.
Walters says to get a grip on the numbers, Rolleston's population was scratching to get to 3000 just 15 years ago. The opening of a New World supermarket in 2002 was the first sign of something possibly starting to happen.
"Rolleston was beginning to develop a little bit. But the council at the time thought Rolleston was only going to get to about 4500 people. So to build a supermarket at that time was a big sign of commitment."
However, then came the Canterbury earthquakes and a flood of house-construction. Walters says under emergency government powers, greenfield land intended to be developed over many decades was released onto the market all at once.
By 2013, the population of Rolleston had breezed past 9000. Today it stands at 14,000. Predictions it will hit 19,000 within 10 years are beginning to look like an underestimate.
Walters says the mix of arrivals is cosmopolitan. "We seem to have a lot of English especially." And rather than being all quake refugees, it is more often the case that people have sold a home in Christchurch, allowing them to make the step further out.
But above all the demographic is youthful, says Walters. It is largely young families that are coming. And this is making Rolleston a 1960s baby boom story all over again. You see people pushing prams everywhere.
Council figures show that a quarter of Rolleston is aged under 15, compared to a Canterbury average of 16 per cent. And just 8 per cent are over 65 – half the usual number.
So Walters says six years ago, Rolleston had a single primary school. Now that one is bursting at the seams, having become the largest in the South Island. And the ministry has had to build three new primaries, with a fifth, Lemonwood, about to open after Christmas.
And also opening after Christmas is a first secondary school, Rolleston College. With 250 Year 9 pupils as an initial intake, it will be the fastest growing secondary school seen anywhere for a long time.
It is just like a repeat of the baby boom, says Walters. You can see why she groans about the challenge. Can Rolleston keep pace with its own expansion?
After the new schools there are also the new parks and sports grounds.
Rolleston College is being built on the corner of Foster Park – the second new public reserve the council has created over the past few years. Yet already Rolleston needs a third still larger.
"Foster Park is only just under development, but we've identified that even that's not going to meet the long-term needs. So we've just bought another block of 100 hectares for a future reserve," Walters says.
Likewise the $15 million Selwyn Aquatic Centre. The first indoor pool in Selwyn, it was only opened in 2013. However plans are in hand for its expansion.
And Rolleston's library and community centre – not much older – are slated to be replaced as part of a major redesign and enlargement of the town shopping centre.
You get the picture, Walters says. The traffic barrelling down the state highway doesn't see what is happening off to the side. But back from the road, Rolleston is growing like stink.
The council doesn't even publish traditional town maps anymore. New streets and facilities are being added too fast. "Now we just print off A3 sheets as people need them so they are up-to-date with things."
Walters says with construction about to start on the Southern Motorway extension – which will halve the journey time between Rolleston and central Christchurch – the town is only going to become even more attractive as an alternative to other post-quake housing areas like Halswell, Wigram and Belfast.
So for Christchurch, it seems time to stop laughing and start asking. Where is Rolleston's rapid expansion all headed?
Does it spell the emergence of a serious rival – a new town on the doorstep stealing away valuable economic growth from the big city? Or instead, is Rolleston going to wind up effectively a new motorway suburb of Christchurch?
Whatever the answer, Rolleston certainly appears to be winning.
As they say in real estate, it all comes down to location. And that is a big reason why people have so long scoffed about the idea of Rolleston.
When Kirk talked of an instant new town, the common reaction was who would ever want to live stuck out in the middle of such a dry, flat and stony part of the Canterbury plains.
Rolleston lacks any obvious destination appeal – no beaches, no hills, no rivers, no wetlands, no bush, no views or interesting features of pretty much any kind.
And yet the converse of that, points out Walters, is it means Rolleston has an abundance of good, cheap land, ideal for construction.
There are no braided rivers threatening floods. Or more importantly these days, Rolleston's shingle ground is proof against earthquakes. Boring can be an advantage when thinking of making 50 to 100 year investments in a town.
And then Rolleston is strategically positioned as a transport hub.
Walters says not only is Rolleston sitting on the state highway, soon to be connected all the way into Christchurch by a motorway, but it exists as a settlement because 150 years ago it was the rail junction where the South Island track forks to cross over to the West Coast.
So it is a convergence of road and rail. And this is what is driving the other side of Rolleston's extreme growth – the snowballing development of the empty fields across the northern side of the state highway to create what is now the South Island's fastest spreading industrial estate.
Selwyn council has its 180ha Izone Southern Business Hub – an area reserved for factories and warehouses larger than Hagley Park.
And next door to that, Christchurch's richest family, the Carter Group, has begun to break ground on I Port, a further 120ha of industrial – and possibly big box retail – development.
Recounting its history, former Selwyn councillor and local poultry farmer turned developer, Jens Christensen, says the Izone began as a gut decision.
Back in 2002, the council knew Rolleston would need local jobs if it was to grow. It didn't want to be simply a satellite commuter community of Christchurch.
So when the council's economic development portfolio was dropped in his lap, says Christensen, it seemed an obvious thing to use Rolleston's abundance of land to start an out-sized business park where people could build mega-projects without the usual city restrictions.
"In this day and age, it was a pretty unique decision because there were no feasibility studies, no economic studies, no studies on anything – just the feeling this would go because it was adjacent to the highways and railways both to the north and south, and also to the West Coast."
Christensen says it helped Selwyn council was small and so handed the whole project to a commercial board. They came in and put in the wide roads, the industrial scale drainage – all the features that would attract big business.
"We made it easy for developers to pick up the size of property they wanted. We met whatever the market asked for. And we were a third to half of the price of industrial land in Christchurch."
But Christensen says no-one could imagine how quickly the Izone has taken off. It now houses over 60 businesses employing about 1100 people.
Warehouse was one of the first, building its South Island distribution centre with a shunting area where it could take the containers straight off the trains. Then came others like Westland Milk and PGG Wrightson Seeds.
Drive around the Izone and there are Fiordland lobster exporters, steel fabricators, wheelchair makers, and farm construction firms. Christensen says because of Rolleston's position, it is becoming a South Island centre for freight despatch and agribusiness.
So the industrial zone was going well, and then a year ago it took another huge jump because the ports decided to make Rolleston a battleground in their national-level competitive tussle.
The Port of Tauranga has ambitions to be New Zealand's main deep harbour taking the next generation of super-sized container ships. South Island ports like Lyttelton could be reduced simply to being local feeders.
As part of its positioning, in 2013 Tauranga took a half stake in Timaru's struggling PrimePort. Then it followed that by buying 15ha in Rolleston's Izone to create MetroPort, an inland freight clearing facility.
Christensen says the logic is that trucks of milk powder, chilled lamb or other Canterbury produce can converge on Rolleston where there will be the free choice of which way to send it – either south by rail to PrimePort, or north to Lyttelton, depending on who offers the best deal.
To counter that clever move, Lyttelton Port has built its own mirror-image operation. The 27ha MidlandPort has just opened as the first tenant for the Carter's I Port development.
So sitting on a rail and road junction is working out far better for Rolleston than anyone dared predict, says Christensen. "We didn't have a clue the ports would be here."
And the port one-upmanship must bring ever more export-oriented businesses to Rolleston, especially the agricultural.
Christensen says the Central Plains Water (CPW) irrigation scheme is also rolling out across Selwyn and over time that will result in a greater variety of crop production.
So think ahead another decade and it could be the big canning plants and food processing factories which want to build in Rolleston, he says.
"There's a potato chip manufacturer who says he just waiting for CPW to come on stream before he moves his operation to Rolleston. There's a lot of things like vegetable and seed production that are going to have to come right through here to get to market in the future."
Rolleston is rocketing away on both sides of the state highway now. On one side the bulldozers are scrapping away the ground for the new subdivisions, on the other, for yet more industrial building.
Walters says that is another of the challenges of success for Rolleston. It risks being divided in two by its roads and rail lines. "We're getting congestion at our only traffic lights at the cross roads. With the increased industrial activity, we have 37 train crossings to deal with a day."
That means another big ticket item on the civic wish list, she says. Selwyn is hoping to get the funding to start building a flyover between the two halves of the town by 2021.
And no doubt such an arch over the main road will be a great place to re-hang that "town of the future" banner in a few years! Which brings back the issue of how much of Rolleston's economic development is at the expense of Christchurch's own western suburbs like Hornby and Halswell.
Walters is bemused by this Christchurch-centric question. First off, she replies, after the earthquakes Christchurch is probably lucky Rolleston was so ready with the greenfield space which kept families and jobs in the area.
"We were already geared up for growth. If Selwyn hadn't been here and set up, many of those people would probably have been lost from Canterbury completely. They would have gone to Auckland or Australia."
But also, Walters says, the way Rolleston has so come up in the world is creating quite enough political friction even locally within Selwyn district itself.
Jealousy is too strong a word. But Selwyn was formed in 1989 by the amalgamation of Malvern and Ellesmere counties. And a division still persists, Walters says.
For many years, the council split itself across several locations because the Malvernites of course thought the district centre should be in Darfield, while the Ellesmerians wanted it in Leeston. "At one stage, we even had some staff based in Hornby," says Walters.
It was only in 2007 that it was agreed to do the sensible thing and build a new administrative base in the middle of the district – strategically situated Rolleston.
Still, Walters says, it is hard to persuade Selwyn voters that spending money to bolster Rolleston's rapid development might be a good idea. Even locals are too used to thinking of it as simply another small town in a district composed of small towns.
An example is a current fuss over tidying up some of Rolleston's older roads so they match the standard of its new developer paid for subdivisions.
"At the last council meeting we had quite a discussion around providing funding to put in some kerb and channel down Masefield Drive. It's right close to the centre of town, but has got a bus stop that's basically a puddle, and no footpath next to it."
Walters says the feeling in Selwyn is why should Rolleston keep getting everything – the new schools, new parks, new swimming pools?
When the council talked about needing parking wardens, again there was the comment that country townships just don't justify such big city services.
Walters – one of the five councillors contesting Selwyn's mayoralty with incumbent Kelvin Coe retiring – says unfortunately Rolleston has yet to find its own political voice. The voter turn out at the last local election in the Selwyn Central ward was a dismal 36 per cent.
"Probably that was because so many were new arrivals. They would have been so busy moving into their houses or getting kids established in school that there wasn't a huge interest last time around," she says.
But Walters says Rolleston – like Lincoln – is the place that is growing. And Rolleston is reaching a size now where for the first time Selwyn has a proper town to speak of.
This is important for the district's sense of identity. Yet also practically.
"At the moment there are no government departments based in Selwyn at all. We're serviced out of Christchurch, or North Canterbury, or Ashburton." A town with a decent population would bring welfare offices and better health services to the district, she says.
So yes, it is good thing if Christchurch is thinking a little differently about Rolleston these days, agrees Walters. But the hope is that everyone is starting to see it in this new and more serious light.