The New Taranaki

Words by Irena Brooks
Tran Lawrence Tran Lawrence

Four months after New Zealanders banded together in a united  front against COVID-19, the nation is operating with a sense of  freedom other countries can only envy. Coronavirus has been eradicated with any new cases literally  being stopped at the border and the economy has bounced back  with a vigour that has defied all predictions. So far.

Many businesses are admitting they are “busier than ever” as they catch up on 4 – 9 weeks of lost trade, while benefitting from a nation intent on doing their duty and spending up large to keep the economy running. 

Of an estimated one million ex-patriated Kiwis, a good portion are clamouring to come home to such an extent, New Zealand had to suspend flights into the country for three weeks in July.

With our borders closed and likely to remain so for some time, there’s also an estimated $11.7 billion* that won’t be able to be spent on international travel. It seems Kiwis are spending their travel funds instead on cars, home improvements and domestic travel.

The government COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund of $50 billion is ensuring a massive cash injection into the New Zealand economy. Along with plans to hasten progress on shovel ready projects, New Zealand is entering a time of unprecedented spending.

In this special feature, LIVE looks at how Taranaki is coping with the after-effects of lockdown and how people and businesses are finding new opportunities amidst a global pandemic.

* Kiwis spent $11.7 billion on international travel in 2019 (source: Statistics New Zealand)

BACKING LOCAL

“Now more than ever, we ask everyone in Taranaki to put their wallet where their home is, and to use their collective purchasing power to make a difference and champion our region,” encouraged Venture Taranaki CEO, Justine Gilliland, back in May.

The Go Local Go Taranaki campaign sees Venture Taranaki spear-heading a collective approach to championing our region’s makers and merchants.  

In the immediate aftermath of lockdown, Taranakians approached shopping with a patriotic fervour that rivalled even the Holy Grail of retail spending, Christmas.

Our retail spend was up around 8% over June last year.

Nationwide spending increased overall too and of the six retail industries, spending increased for four (consumables, durables, apparel, and vehicles) compared with last June (source: stats.govt.nz).

Only hospitality (-7.3%) and fuel (-15%) were down on the previous two years.

“The more we can support our Taranaki-based enterprises and products, the sooner we can begin our road to recovery … returning not just to a new normal, but to a new better,” Justine says.

A Venture Taranaki Business Survey conducted in June, just as the country emerged into Level One, revealed most businesses (62.7%) thought the national economic condition of their industry would either stay the same, or improve, over the next year.

Sales forecasts were also viewed favourably with 81% of respondents expecting them to stay the same or improve.

Most respondents thought employment would hold firm and the majority felt they would be able to recover from the effects of COVID-19.

While residents were doing their duty dining and spending locally, the NPDC put together a $20m Back On Our Feet plan. 

This included giving Taranaki contractors and suppliers an advantage when bidding for NPDC jobs; injecting $7.5m into an expanded Home Insulation scheme to keep tradies in work, while keeping residents warm; and slashing fees for local businesses.

Hospitality businesses, beauty, tattoo and hair parlours now pay just $1 to renew their licences.

Fees for on-street dining, temporary road closures or events in our parks, have been wiped, as have the first $1000 of building consent processing fees.

The council has put aside $50,000 for property owners to help enhance main street buildings to help keep the central areas vibrant.  

Owner of Flora and Co. Indoor Plant Studio Maree Wiki said the façade fund helped pay for a new shop frontage in May, which has boosted her business and given work to local designers and tradespeople.

Shoppers now get an hour of free parking
in the centre city on metered parks.

There will still be a rates increase of 3.95% this financial year, which translates to roughly 2.5% for the average household …
or $62 a year, says Mayor Neil Holdom.

“We need to own the challenges ahead of us, and not leave
huge debt for following generations to pick up.”

LOCAL BUSINESS EXPERIENCES

“Everyone wore out their shoes over lockdown, so we’ve chewed through lot of our winter stock,” noted Nick Bull from The Shoe Clinic.

“Once we re-opened people came in to buy replacement pairs. Also, with having more time available, they were able to take advantage of our footscan and treadmill video analysis, which helps us select the right shoe for the right purpose for each individual.”

Though he enjoyed the first few weeks off work, he admits he was itching to get back in the store and see his customers.

“I couldn’t wait to get back because I love what we do.”

“There’s a whole lot of positives to come out of COVID,” says Peter Merson of Showcase Jewellers. 

“Talking with other retailers, we are all experiencing instances of people spending money they may have saved over lockdown, or using funds that had been ear-marked for overseas travel.”

“Retail is constantly changing … We’re finding in addition to people coming in and browsing, others come in with a picture on their phone and say ‘I want this’. But that’s more a reflection of the internet, rather than any COVID effect.”

Murray Dick, owner/director of Taranaki Engineering is about to open a new workshop in Wellington.

“We’re actually busy as,” said the owner/director during June.

“When oil and gas dropped off we concentrated on infrastructure, building roads, bridges and building services in the construction sector. Things are looking good for us, in fact, at the moment we’re advertising for staff.” 

To help compensate for any long-term downturn the virus may bring, the company has invested in new technology to open up further avenues of work.

Peter Tennent likes to look on the bright side. “Our taxes will be lower,” he offers after having The Devon Hotel operating at partial capacity for over three months now.

“People have reconnected like never before. It’s great to be able to look up and see the stars at night. And it was great to be able to cross the road without having to look left and right for cars. I’ve turned into a greenie,” he laughs.

He’s loved hearing feedback from friends who, at the start of lockdown, wondered how they would get through the first week closed up with their family, and by the end had reconnected to the point that they knew they would look back fondly on this period of their lives.

Lockdown was great for us,” Glynn Taylor admits. “The kids came home and we spent five weeks together playing board games and just enjoying each other’s company.”

He and wife Debbie own 4 Seasons and they were classed as an essential service because of their heating aspect, “but it wasn’t a lot of work just to keep that side of things ticking over.

“I suppose at times it was difficult, but it was also fantastic … we have never had that much time away from the store before.”

Financially, Glynn reckons they are no worse off than pre-COVID.

Once lockdown ended they were swamped with sales of spa pools.

“People were having to cancel their cruises and overseas trips and they decided to spend that money on investing on their wellbeing at home. We’re booked out until October for spa installations.”

With the heating side of the business, they were already behind before COVID hit so they’re trying to manage the workload until they clear the backlog.

The couple have made changes to the business post-COVID too.

“We’ve changed our winter trading hours to just Monday to Friday … we will no longer open on Saturdays apart from appointments only.”

Trading has settled down to normal patterns now (late June) and the couple are confident they will emerge from the COVID crisis in good shape.

Nick Wilson from Dogs 4 Life is another business owner who is feeling positive about the post-COVID economic environment.

“To be honest, I’ve never been busier.”

During lockdown he worked on online training and has picked up a client in Wisconsin, USA.

Like many dog owners, he loved having time at home with his dog.

His main concern now is for the puppies who were adopted just before lockdown and who didn’t get the normal socialisation experiences dogs need.

“We’re going to have a generation of Covid-puppies and that will be a problem,” he fears. “Eighty percent of a dog’s brain development occurs in the first 4 – 16 weeks. During that formative period puppies need to be exposed to everything they’ll experience as adult dogs to ensure they are adequately socialised.”

But it’s never too late to address dog behavioural issues and every dog will be different.

“The sooner owners get onto any issues, the better the outcome.”

David and Cheryl Leuthart of Timberco were straight into supporting local hospitality businesses as soon as Level 2 allowed them to.

“The first night we did Social Kitchen, the next night it was Nice Hotel, and then The Hour Glass the third night,” David recalls.

He worked most mornings during lockdown, then went for a walk or bike ride in the afternoons.

“The walkway was unbelievable with the amount of people enjoying the weather and some quality family time,” he recalls.

“We’re so lucky in Taranaki — I can’t think of a better place to live.”

When Timberco opened up again they experienced an influx of new customers, all keen to support a local business.

He thinks that is Taranaki’s competitive advantage — supporting local — and will ultimately be what helps the region get through.

JobHop.co.nz

Stephen Reed and Gordon Heggie started
web-based platform JobHop.co.nz  in 2018.

“It’s taken this long to build and deploy to help any upheaval in the employment market back then, but it’s even more relevant after the pandemic,” says Gordon.

JobHop is all about connecting those who need a few hours work with those who need a helping hand.

From fence painting, insulation installation, ditch digging or filling in for someone who’s sick, businesses or private households can advertise their requirements, and Job Hoppers get paid a flat rate of $21.50 an hour, with businesses paying $25inc per hour to the service. Workers get paid the same day they do the work.

“It’s kind of like Tinder for jobs,” explains Stephen. “Most people just want a chance to prove themselves and sometimes a few hours work can turn into a full-time job.

“It’s going really really well in New Plymouth. We’ve had heaps of matches and businesses have been getting much-needed help with their backlog of work.”

The system has been launched nationwide and ever since an item appeared on Seven Sharp in early July, the JobHop team is busier than ever.

THE BRAIN GAIN

It’s estimated around one million Kiwis live abroad, but since New Zealand entered Level 4, just over 23,000 had returned by the first week of July.  

A further 9000 people on other passports – most of them residents – also arrived. Conversely, 9621 Kiwis left. That’s a net gain of around 22,000 people over three months.

Compare that to the annual net migration rate last year of 56,000, with 50,200 in 2018, and 52,600 in 2017. 

For some, the reason to come back was driven by New Zealand’s success at eliminating COVID-19. For others, it was job uncertainty and no access to welfare in their adopted countries. Most of the returnees are from Australia.

Around 500 people a day were returning to New Zealand before the government had to put up the NO VACANCY sign for three weeks of July. At that rate, New Zealand could look forward to well over an extra 100,000 people arriving here in 2020, which equates to about two more cities the size of New Plymouth (pop. 55,000).

Meanwhile the government worked to clear the current inhabitants of the 26 quarantine facilities that can house almost 7000 people, and set up further capacity.

“The border closure isn’t just about who is coming back but it’s also about who is no longer leaving as well,” stated ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley in a New Zealand Herald article published in July. He pointed out people’s lack of ability to travel will at least stop New Zealand leaking skills.

Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen noted many returnees were able to continue working for the companies they were employed at offshore, reducing the need to find new jobs in New Zealand.

Post lockdown, with an election looming, people were predicting house prices to take a dive, but so far, that hasn’t happened.

New Plymouth median house prices increased 9.7% from $470,000 in May 2019 to $515,000 in May this year.

By June 2020, median house prices for New Plymouth had climbed to $520,000, from $425,000 in June 2019 — an increase of 22.5%! Total sales volume had increased by more than 27% over the same month last year.

TOURISM & HOSPITALITY

According to Tourism Industry Association, total tourism expenditure is $40.9 billion a year — $17.2 billion of that is from international tourists, and $23.7 billion is from domestic tourism.

The ‘Back Your Backyard’ campaign is aimed at encouraging
New Zealanders to explore their own country and boost domestic tourism. Logically, if every Kiwi went on twice as many local trips/holidays as they normally do, the 2020 tourism take could be as much as it usually is.

The fact that Taranaki only ever has around a 3% share of the international tourism pie, means we are less affected than regions who relied on international visitors for their economy, says Justine Gilliland of Venture Taranaki.

“We have a compelling and unique product offering and our stories differentiate us from other regions,” says Justine.

Food tourism especially offered a big opportunity, Gilliland says, with a range of goods produced here which could be further developed.   

Venture Taranaki was also looking to drive investment in infrastructure as in the past, with projects like the Len Lye Centre and improving the Pouakai Crossing, which had made a huge impact on visitor numbers to the region.

“Now is the time to sell our amazing region to your friends and family, and encourage them to visit Taranaki, explore all we have to offer, and have an experience like no other.”

“It’s certainly not a profitable time to be in tourism right now,” concedes The Devon Hotel’s Peter Tennent, “but Taranaki’s tourists are predominantly domestic so we’re set up better for domestic travellers and a fabulous destination.

“The explore New Zealand campaign has seen increased numbers to the region right from Queen’s Birthday weekend. And people came here ready to spend and support the local retail sector.”

The New Plymouth District Council is hoping to see an increase in motorhomes visiting the area after receiving the official seal of approval from the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association. The NZMCA represents more than 95,000 private motorhome and caravan owners.

The final development New Plymouth needed for the accreditation was a motorhome dump station on public land, which is now open on Rifle Range Road in Waiwhakaiho, thanks to the support of the local community in that area.

FESTIVALS AND EVENTS

Two festivals affected by lockdown are collaborating with Taranaki Arts Festival Trust, to create a mega-event over the first
two weeks of November.

The long-running Taranaki Garden Festival (30 Oct – 8 Nov) has partnered with the Taranaki Arts Trail (30 Oct – 1 Nov) and are presenting a dual programme. 

Then TAFT’s new event, RESET 2020, kicks off on 5 – 15 Nov.

Meanwhile, the region’s restaurant ‘week’ Feast Festival Taranaki, will operate for the duration. Showcasing Taranaki’s high calibre restaurants and food scene, the event will run  across both festivals, encouraging locals to get out and support our amazing hospitality scene.

A lively cross-generational festival programme, RESET 2020 is being curated to appeal to every kind of audience, says Suzanne Porter, CEO of TAFT. Shows will include cabaret, comedy, music and theatre performances — a celebration of New Zealand artists in all their diversity.  

“We decided to be bold, take some risk and present an arts festival, we want our region to thrive post-COVID 19. This festival is providing a platform for New Zealand artists to get back to work, and enabling our local communities the opportunity to engage again with the festival experience. Our partners and sponsors have been amazing in their continued support during trying times, without them we would not be presenting this programme.”

RESET 2020 will officially launch the festival programme and supporting events mid-August.  

The NPDC has also announced L.A.B. will be performing  on the 9th January, in the first Bowl of Brooklands concert for the summer. Support acts are The Black Seeds, Mako Road, Anna Coddington and Hāwera-born Bailey Wiley.

Oxfam Trailwalker 2021, is due to be held on 20-21 March next year, and will see hundreds of Kiwis descend on Taranaki to take on the challenge of their lives.

The event sees teams of four walk massive distances – 50km in 18 hours or 100km in under 36 hours – usually with no sleep, to raise funds for Oxfam’s projects in the Pacific and around the world, which provide long-term solutions to the injustice of poverty. The event is not a relay; teams must start and finish together. It’s an inspiring, incredible weekend filled with the buzz of people experiencing an epic journey together all for a good cause.

With the March 2020 event cancelled due to Covid-19, it is expected the 2021 event will be well supported.

BUT WAIT… WE HAVE A PLAN

Venture Taranaki is leading the economic recovery pillar for the region, as part of a
wider regional recovery plan post-COVID.

The region already has a head start after developing the Taranaki 2050 Roadmap for transitioning to a lower emissions world.

“Taranaki is in a better place than many other regions — we already know what we want to focus on,” says Justine Gilliland.

The plan has been created to guide and focus efforts from May 2020 to mid-2023 and integrates Tapuae Roa (the regional economic development strategy) and Taranaki 2050 actions, shaped by Covid-19 impacts.

“We’ve already built some strong foundations by taking that collaborative approach, but there’s nothing like a crisis to help everyone pull together and really set aside differences in light of what unites us all,” says Justine.

“Now there may be an opportunity to accelerate some things so that we can have a return to better, rather than a return to normal.”

KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON

“A statement I heard over lockdown that really resonated with me is ‘chaos is contagious’,” recalls Donna Cooper, Chief Executive at TSB. 

“So if you’re a leader, dealing with a family, your team members, your customers, and you’re chaotic, then everybody picks up on that. Our role was to support people through challenging times … people were calling us often under a great deal of stress. It was important we remained calm so that the team, who were dealing with those customers, also felt calm and supportive. The other learning is it’s OK to not always be OK. With COVID-19 we’re all going through this rollercoaster journey together.”

Tom Boon, chief executive at Taranaki Pine, which employs 175 people, remembers going into “some pretty dark places,” early in lockdown.

“Working on worst-case scenarios, others that were a little bit better, then a little bit better again, and pulling together multiple plans along with cashflow forecasts around it. Once I saw that in every scenario, from the very worst one, that we could still survive this, it gave me the confidence, and the team the confidence, that we were up for it.”

There is concern in the construction industry that things may slow down. 

However, Rod Roebuck at GJ Gardner had continuing inquiries throughout lockdown and once he and the team returned to the office. He puts it down to two things… interest rates have never been lower, and over lockdown, couples actually had a chance to really talk and work out what they wanted in a new home. Maybe even spending weeks at home, they realised what their current home was lacking, he suggests.

“I also think with the weather during lockdown being so good, people got a chance to do a bit of home maintenance and what better time to sell than when your home is looking good?”

“It can be lonely for business owners, especially sole traders and owners of small to Medium enterprises (SMEs),” says Justine. “We have had cases where owners care so much for their people they put themselves into quite a significant debt situation in order to keep their people on.

“We have to ask them … is that what’s best for all of you in the long run?”

“If as a leader, you’re not looking after yourself, you’re actually good for no-one,” points out Donna Cooper. “If I, or any of my leadership team had fallen over, it would have been spectacularly unhelpful for our team and our customers.”

What really inspired her was seeing people have a real desire to help each other.

“Everybody’s thinking about not just what they can do for themselves, but what can they do for other people. Not everyone can help everyone, but everybody can help somebody.

“I hope this carries forward … I think there’s a better way we can do what we do and a lot of people have realised what’s really important to them because of lockdown. There’s a willingness to work together to make a difference.”

Working from home is a trend some businesses are continuing with.

“We all proved you can still be extremely efficient working from home,” says Donna. “In fact there’s a danger you work too much when you’re home-based.”

Kelvin Wright, Chief Operating Officer at NPDC says some people have asked if they can continue to work from home, and as long as the output remains consistent he doesn’t see a problem with that, even on a part-time basis. 

“I think there is a new way of working that is ultimately better for everybody.”

THE NEW NORMAL

For Taranaki people, the new normal won’t include international travel for some time. 

It seems more of us may spend time working from home. 

And if we continue exploring New Zealand and supporting local businesses, there is a feeling that Taranaki may get through COVID-19 just fine.

There have been job losses but conversely, some Taranaki employers LIVE spoke to in June were finding it difficult to fill
job vacancies.

“We have two positions available at the moment and can’t find qualified staff to fill either one of them,” said Terry Parkes of
Nice Hotel in early June.

Sectors where employment is on the rise include construction and infrastructure as the government seeks to fast-track infrastructure projects and build 8,000 state homes.

Health care assistants are in high demand as are people to work in community health and contact centres.

There was funding of over $1 billion in Budget 2020 to create 11,000 new environmental jobs in the regions. Some forestry workers have already found new work in bush track maintenance, tree planting, and pest and weed control.

The food and fibre industry has immediate demand for seasonal and long-term roles. Kiwifruit pickers, dairy and beef workers, beekeepers and vineyard pruners are particularly in demand. Long-term career opportunities in this industry include science and technology roles such as environmental planning and food technology. 

A sharp fall in employment opportunities usually leads to more people, particularly young people, going into tertiary training or extending their studies. It’s predicted that course or apprenticeship enrolment will increase by 8% in 2020. The Government’s free targeted vocational and tertiary education and training for all New Zealanders over the next two years could see more opportunities for course tutors and administration staff.

New Plymouth MP Jonathan Young, says: “I don’t think we’ve fallen off a cliff, more like slipped down a bank.

“Everybody’s going to be the author of Taranaki’s success as we support local enterprises and that’s going to do some real good for our community. 

“The fundamentals of the Taranaki economy are still strong, in terms of what we produce. We are a region rich in natural resources that are the envy of the world. Some of the best growing areas, minerals, oil and gas, and look historically, because we have lived so far away from other centres, we are a real can-do population, where people have a lot of ingenuity and a lot of smarts.”

TARANAKI TOURISM GETS BOOST 

There are three major tourism development projects either underway or starting soon, paid for by the Provincial Growth Fund. In July it was announced Parihaka would be given $14m to build a visitor centre and make other improvements to preserve and share the history of the settlement. Work on the first stage of the Taranaki Crossing started earlier this year, improving tracks and capacity at Pouakai Hut, in a $13.3m project. This Spring, work to seal the 12km of unsealed road in the Tangarakau Gorge is expected to begin with a $9.6m investment.

THE PROJECTS 

The big projects happening in Taranaki
over the next 2 years

With the government committing to a $3 billion budget to bring forward ‘shovel ready’ projects, $85 million has been allocated to Taranaki, with one project already announced.

A new and greener Thermal Dryer for the New Plymouth district’s wastewater treatment plant will bring $37 million into the local economy.

New Plymouth-based Hiringa Energy will supply hydrogen as the Thermal Dryer runs on a hydrogen/natural gas blend. This will significantly reduce the carbon footprint of running the facility by between 25% to 40%.

“We welcome the Coalition Government’s investment in our community in an initiative which is good for the environment, good for the engineering sector and just what our local economy needs right now as we recover from Covid-19,” says Mayor Neil Holdom.

An extra $44 million is being invested to make New Plymouth district’s water network more resilient. This covers drinking, waste and storm water.

Taranaki Base Hospital build budgeted at $300 million, is due to start by the end of this year.

Roading projects Central Government has already committed to include The Mt Messenger by-pass (currently under appeal from local landowners) which will bring in around $200 million into the community. Also the $29 million road works project around Waitara and Bell Block. Three of NZ’s 100 most dangerous intersections are along that stretch.

In June, work began on the $15 million dollar redevelopment of the Taranaki Cathedral. 

Part one of the redevelopment involves moving the old St Mary’s Church Vicarage closer to Hatherly Hall, which is attached to the Cathedral. The Vicarage would be renovated and transformed into a multi-purpose education, events and activity space, over an anticipated three year period.

OMV New Zealand is to spend $15 million refurbishing its new headquarters on Gill Street in New Plymouth, with between 85 percent and 90 percent of the project budget to be spent locally in New Plymouth and with New Zealand suppliers.

Once completed, the building – which was being leased – would provide a permanent home for 300 OMV staff and contractors, and house the 24/7 control room for the Pohokura Gas Field.

Meanwhile, Mayor Neil Holdom sees an opportunity to invest in our post-secondary education.

“WITT has a role to play in helping retrain people who are suddenly out of work. Council’s are collaborating by identifying projects with a high component of physical labour. We have a ten year programme of work and we can move some things around so we’ve sought some crown infrastructure funding to help bring some of those projects forward.

“If WITT was a really high quality Tier 2 educator that was really connected in with the top ten companies in Taranaki, there’d be millions and millions of dollars worth of training there. You could bring in top educators from around the world via Zoom.”

There are other ideas around our food sector

Holdom cites Ash Peters’ BBQ Foods as the type of high end food product New Zealand should be exporting … not aiming for mass production as much as a higher yield.

“Also the government has estimated they will have to spend about $140 million to clean up the mess left by Tamarind. Then there’s other decommissioning work that will need to happen over the next decade. 

Tamarind Taranaki went into receivership during Dec 2019 after its $300 million offshore drilling campaign at the Tui oil field failed. It owes creditors about $484m and it is expected to cost the NZ government around $140 million to decommission the Tui oil field.

“We can tap into local expertise to fulfil those roles. Hopefully the government realises that ‘buy local’ doesn’t just relate to the people living locally … it should also relate to the government. The skills to decommission that Tui Field absolutely exist here.”

Ara Ake – The National New Energy Development Centre – was officially launched by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 23rd July. The company will spearhead New Zealand’s journey to a low-emissions future.

“Hiringa is also working with Ballance to develop the wind and hydrogen facility at Kapuni,” says Mayor Holdom. “Then we’ve got Tilt and Genesis installing the Waverley Wind Farm, and First Gas undertaking hydrogen trials on their gas network, so there are a number of projects starting to come together. It’s that energy sector that underpins the national economy.”

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