Old spa town set to shine again

DYNAMIC: Shaun and Jillian O'Neill, are driving development of Te Aroha.
DYNAMIC: Shaun and Jillian O'Neill, are driving development of Te Aroha.

As befits a human dynamo, Te Aroha champion and cheerleader Jillian O'Neill is sleek in a racing red dress.

Husband and Te Aroha Business Association chairman Shaun O'Neill is all business in a fine white shirt and black pressed trou, but they could be wearing sacks and still exude confidence and purpose.

Morrinsville-raised Jillian O'Neill, a marketing consultant whose business is called Oomphatic, and her husband, a North Otago-born surveyor who owns land development consultancy GeoMetrix, are indisputedly a power couple in this town of 3,700 people.

There's a new vibe in the old gold mining and Edwardian spa settlement, puddled at the eastern foot of Mount Te Aroha, and when townspeople talk about new optimism, the name O'Neill inevitably crops up.

The couple has grabbed the opportunities offered by the opening last May of the Thames to Te Aroha Hauraki Rail Trail, which is disgorging hundreds more cyclists into their town than expected, and from the local presence of big primary industry corporates like Fonterra, Silver Fern Farms and Inghams nearby, and run with them.

They're developing a multi-million dollar 4.5 star accommodation project called The Landing for corporate and leisure visitors on the banks of the picturesque Waihou River, and have plans for a $10 million tourist accommodation and leisure complex in another part of town.   

Always active in community circles since they moved there 15 years ago, the couple are now nagging at the Te Aroha business psyche, which has taken a hammering over the years from the loss of big employers such as Bendon, Power New Zealand, and the IRD, to start behaving like a tourist town.

Shaun O'Neill says with 100 trail cyclists pouring into Te Aroha each weekend, and expectations that 40,000 will have used the trail, the North Island's easiest grade, in its first year - eclipsing official estimates of 40,000 in five years -  it's time businesses woke up and smelled the coffee

Of course Te Aroha is no tourism sector debutante. It's unique mineral spa waters have been attracting Kiwi visitors for decades.

And as Shaun O'Neill reminds, the New Zealand Tourism Department started in Te Aroha when trains arrived in 1886 bringing Edwardians to ''take the waters''.

''It's like history repeating itself - but with bikes,'' he says.

This week when the Waikato Times visited, vacant car parks were scarce in the main street, as dozens of holidaymakers supped coffee in glorious sunshine, walked the mountain's tracks and thronged the town's cafes for lunch.

But the O'Neills say with ''carloads'' of Aucklanders now also coming to Te Aroha after work during the week to bike the mountain trails, have a spa then eat, it's proving a challenge to persuade some town businesses to keep ''tourism'' hours.

They're not unsympathetic, noting many businesses are run by husband and wife teams, who need their R&R after a rough time surfing the economic downturn.

Steve Rice runs The Cottage cafe in the Te Aroha Domain with wife Andrea. The couple lease the premises from domain operator, the Matamata-Piako District Council, and Steve Rice says the cycle trail has made a big difference to the business.

''It's bringing people to town, we get large groups with 15 people at a time suddenly appearing. When it
(the trail) opened I built a bike rack out of pallets and said when that got full I'd build another. We've now got three.''

At main street gift and home decor business Addictions, owner Kylie Waterman has a shop full browsing her cavernous store and its unusually huge range - the boutique's point of difference, she says, is high turnover of product. The colourful offerings would easily stand Ponsonby shopper scrutiny but at half Auckland prices.

Waterman and husband Glen are about to open another, smaller Addictions in Paeroa, and other outlets are planned in the Waikato, though she is keeping mum about where.

Waterman's getting on board the tourism initiative, offering weekend shopping and relaxation packages to overseas companies which provide her imported products.

The town's spas, biking trail, mountain walks, trout fishing and dining prospects, and latterly the O'Neills' accommodation initiatives, mean ''there's so much you can do here''.

Nailing numbers for cycle trail visitors to the town is challenging.  The council doesn't have numbers yet and figures were not immediately available from Thames-based Hauraki Rail Trail, which offers accommodation booking, bussing and transport,  returning 15 per cent of accommodation bookings income to a trust which operates the trail.  

Te Aroha Mineral Spas manager Kieren Ross says a new improved booking system was only introduced in December. But she says there's no doubt numbers are up this summer.
Gloria Lawton, owner of cafe Banco in a 1923 main street former bank, says there's been a noticeable increase in visitors to town, which she reckons is becoming a weekend destination for Waikato and Auckland people.

She thinks the town would do even better with better signposting from the cycle trail's current termination at the old Te Aroha railway station, due for restoration, and is confident that when the trail is extended to Matamata's Hobbiton, Te Aroha will hit pay dirt.

''The town feels a lot more buoyant. We're hopeful at the moment. We have to dig deep and go with this,'' says Lawton, who like so many Te Aroha residents is an Auckland import.

She arrived in town around 17 years ago and never left. Son Ben, who has been working with Burger Fuel overseas, has come to Te Aroha from Melbourne to help strengthen the business, she says. Currently Banco offers only lunches and coffee, but a monthly market has started up in its garden, live music is now on the menu, and Lawton says she plans to open the garden for intimate functions and live music next summer.

The surge of optimism has even infected the district council.

Facilities operations manager Bruce Langlands says the rail trail has offered the private sector opportunities.

''People need stuff, they forget
things, like helmets. We need people to open. Once we get people staying the night it will only get better.''

It's not long before Langlands mentions the O'Neills.

They're doing good work for the town and the council supports their efforts, he says.

Never ones to let grass grow under their feet - they also own an oesteopath practice in Hamilton and and a physiotherapy practice in Te Aroha, emplying 30 people in their various business ventures -  they've proved nimble in responding to the cycle trail promise.

Their ''riverhouse'' accommodation precinct at The Landing, site of an old dairy factory where butter boats once pulled up to load for Auckland,  started as a retirement village.

The standalone modern style brick and tile homes with ensuites and double garages overlooking the Waihou River were built by the O'Neills and four other investors who pulled down the old dairy factory and remediated the site.

After the cycle trail opened the O'Neills bought out their partners, bar one, having spotted a potential market for accommodation for weekend visitors, families, and corporate sorts and other business people visiting nearby companies. The Landing opened on Waitangi Day.

The couple unashamedly seek to lift the standard of visitor accommodation in the town which is currently served by two motels including The Landing, two old-style mainstreet wooden hotels and according to Jillian O'Neill, 31 B&Bs.

She points out that a corporate executive after a long day, or at the start of a new one, doesn't necessarily want to share a family's table. 

The couple have five ''riverhouses'' at The Landing and immediate plans for 10  studios. They say they promote guest independence - there's no receptionist at The Landing; a bird sculpture by a local artisan swallows the keys when visitors leave. The garages will be a boon to classic car rally visitors worried about overnight security for their vehicles.

The O'Neill's next big project is The Station on 2.3 hectares of land they've bought beside Millar St, adjacent to the cycling track end. It's home to the old railway station which is to be restored by the local railway trust with a 7 inch minature track.

The Station will have quality accommodation, a spa facility, cafe, bar and restaurant and a collaborative Te Aroha shop, where local award-winning food purveyors and artisans can showcase their products and a cycle hire and bike shop.

Jillian O'Neill says funding for this, a $10m project, is still being pursued, and the more people who come to Te Aroha to stay overnight should shorten the hunt.

While the O'Neills, who also find time to raise two young boys, are the town's current entrepreneurial poster couple, they are not glory seekers. They say they would love it if other businesses also worked up a head of steam.

''We all know if we pull together we will move ahead. It's not competitive, if we work together as a team we can help each other,'' says Jillian O'Neill.