In the first of our series focusing on the region's mayors, Siena Yates speaks to Matamata-Piako district mayor Hugh Vercoe.
Being mayor for nearly 15 years obviously agrees with Hugh Vercoe, as he stands on the side of the road waving at passers-by like a celebrity in a parade.
He's a man with little time but time enough for those he knows - which, evidently, is most of Te Aroha's population, and his pride in his town and district is unmistakable.
Smiling, he talked about what has been a banner year for the Matamata-Piako district.
It has sat comfortably in the limelight of The Hobbit, welcomed new community projects and seen huge advances in local meat and dairy industries, but he does fear it may be less smooth in the new year.
Leaning back and smiling proudly in his Te Aroha office, Mr Vercoe described a thriving district.
On a grass roots level, he said more people were putting in for resource consents and building than in past years, and with the ever-growing production of companies such as Inghams Enterprises, Silver Fern Farms, Open Country Dairy and Waikato Business Excellence Supreme Award-winner Greenlea Premier Meats, he said the region was "tracking along nicely".
The region has also gained publicity and a massive tourism boost on the back of Sir Peter Jackson's latest epic, The Hobbit. Matamata, home to Hobbiton, has already seen a boost in tourism numbers which are expected to double over the next year, following therelease of the film early this month and the sequel on its way in 2013.
The Lord of the Rings films brought huge amounts of publicity, tourism and money to Matamata and the rest of the district, and now The Hobbit has been reviving that effort.
"The Hobbit's been absolutely fantastic for this area. The gateway [i-Site] looks fantastic and is getting a lot of positive comments, and it's just an enormous benefit, not just to Matamata but for the district," said Mr Vercoe.
"People are coming here on a limited timeframe just to come and see the movie set, so they go to Matamata first and have a look around, then they'll go and ask what else there is to do nearby and they'll be referred on here to Te Aroha, or to Morrinsville and that's how we get that flow-on effect. It's great."
However, funding for things like regional tourism, which for Matamata-Piako amounts to $100,000 each year, may become a thing of the past as a result of new local government reform.
Then-local government minister Nick Smith said the Local Government Act Amendment Bill would keep local authorities in check, encouraging better financial discipline and providing services easier for the "average ratepayer" to comprehend.
However, Mr Vercoe said the reform put "a question mark" over whether funding regional tourism and other such projects with ratepayer money will even be legal as the changes set in. "That's been the biggest thing," he said, "and will be going into 2013 as well. But we'll just have to wait and see, I think."
He was also somewhat dubious about what the new year might bring in regards to the council changes to the district's waste water management, popularly labelled the "pan tax".
Earlier in the year, council flipped back and forward before eventually settling on three options for wastewater payment, including pay by pan, by household equivalents, or by metered usage - a decision Mr Vercoe stands by unwaveringly.
"How can you have one flat charge for every user? It's unfair. Most people are running on the water meters now, and they have - reluctantly - agreed that it is a fairer system," said Mr Vercoe.
"There hasn't been a terribly big impact so far this year but I've no doubt we'll start to see it next year."
But with the bad comes the good, and 2013 will also see the rise of a multimillion-dollar events centre in Te Aroha, after securing enough funding for the council to get behind it.
"They came to us and asked for the funding and I said, ‘Put your money where your mouth is'. So they went away and they came back and said, ‘Well, we've got a million dollars', and that grabs your attention, when someone says that. So we put up the $2 million they asked us for and they're going to try to raise the rest," said Mr Vercoe.
But before finding out what the new year has to bring, it's off to the family bach for the Vercoe family Christmas - far enough to take a break but close enough should he need to come back, particularly with his civil emergency obligations.
"But it should be good. I'm hoping the whole family can get out there and I can have a bit of a break before getting back into it all next year."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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