OPINION: It is a common problem in many small towns and cities around the world. Plenty of academic interest has initiated frequent studies by economists, geographers, planners and tourism experts, trying to dichotomize how to develop/regenerate stagnating local economies.
These studies have concentrated on policies, practices and the various challenges for tourism and industry. The ‘rust belt’ in the United States is an example of how some big cities have also fallen by the wayside when deindustrialisation takes hold as manufacturing declines, due to automation and new technology which creates unemployment.
Many regions throughout New Zealand face similar challenges. Some media commentators have suggested these are zombie towns with little hope of ever recovering. We know that is certainly not the case in the Whanganui, Taranaki, Ruapehu and Manawatu regions.
Councils in Whanganui, Taranaki, Ruapehu and Manawatu all have their economic development arms with various budgets to promote business, tourism and education opportunities. These organisations are doing the best they can do with their budgets and there are good signs these regions are picking up. The secret here is that you have to spend money to make money.
But … we cannot be complacent … there is more required for economic success in our region. If we are to propel our regions and economies to bigger and better things, then we need to pump a few more steroids into them.
We have to take more calculated risks – we have to find worthy projects, worthy people and we have to press the Government to support these projects that fit in with its voiced support of regional development.
We cannot let the politicians pay us lip service during election time, to win votes.
I think we have found a worthy project and a worthy person in a determined old bugger called Neville Johnson, who is putting 110 per cent effort into his proposed Whanganui-Motueka ferry service – a proposal that has the potential to boost Whanganui, Taranaki, Ruapehu and Manawatu.
We have heard of several similar projects like this in the past that have ended up going nowhere, but this time, Neville and a small group of comrades have taken it to the next level and produced a compelling and professionally compiled feasibility study to back up their idea.
The good news is that this project is highly likely to be profitable within its first 12 months of operation. While first indications are that a freight ferry is likely to be far more profitable than a passenger ferry, once the project is up and running, and profitable, a passenger ferry may be the next stage of the project.
Even if that stage is not so profitable, just imagine the economic benefits to our region through the tourism that will be driven into Whanganui, Taranaki, Ruapehu and Manawatu. For way too long these areas have been too far off the beaten track to get their fair share of tourism, but with a main highway route from Motueka-Whanganui to Auckland this will all change and act as an obvious tourist loop to go up and down the North Island.
It is also a much-needed backup, should Wellington suffer from the inevitable earthquake that will possibly destroy the Wellington port and access to the South Island.
Perhaps we don’t need a gold-plated project with the high associated capital costs to start with. Perhaps a basic terminal, a leased ferry and a leased dredge may very well suffice to get the project off the ground … baby steps to start.
July 1, 2021, may go down as the day the rejuvenation of our regional economy finally took off and started to flex its economic muscle – the day of the first planned sailing of the Whanganui-Motueka ferry.
This is a calculated risk we cannot afford to pass up, even if it should eventually fail, which is looking less likely by the day. Political leaders in Whanganui, Taranaki, Ruapehu, Manawatu and the Government must all get behind this project and simply make it happen.
We will all be better off for it.
Steve Baron is a political commentator, author and founder of Better Democracy NZ.