“I've had so many aquaculture folk bail me up at conferences and stuff like that saying, you realise it can't be done?” says Aileen Lawrie, previous Chief Executive of Ōpōtiki District Council and current Chief Executive of Thames Coromandel District Council. She’s talking about the Ōpōtiki Harbour Transformation, a project that’s been in the works for around twenty years, which is set to transform the region by bringing in $41-55 million per year in additional wealth, creating hundreds of new jobs for the local community, and increasing social, economic and cultural wellbeing for the area. “Two decades later, here we are,” she adds. “And we're doing it.”
At its core, the Ōpōtiki Harbour Transformation is about capitalising on the huge opportunity for an aquaculture industry in the region. This is being facilitated through the creation of a new harbour entrance that is fit for this sort of industry, as the former one - once a key port for the district - no longer was.
But this project isn’t just infrastructure. “For so long, things have not been very good here, from an economic point of view, from a social point of view,” says Lyn Riesterer, former Mayor of Ōpōtiki. A 2019 council update on the Harbour Transformation project notes that four out of five areas in Ōpōtiki District were among the most socio-economically deprived areas in New Zealand, and that these statistics are directly linked to the lack of employment opportunities in the region. That’s what this Harbour Transformation Project, and the aquaculture industry it engenders, is set to change.
Aileen first saw opportunities inherent in the project around 20 years ago, when it was simply a consent application for large-scale offshore aquaculture sitting on someone’s desk. Where others saw major challenges, Aileen saw positives. “I was going, ‘Actually, there's a massive opportunity here, for the Eastern Bay of Plenty,” she says. “I looked at it from that perspective the moment I saw it, to be honest.”
“I think the key part is that John Forbes, who was the Mayor, picked a project that was going to sit comfortably with the community,” Aileen says of the project’s success. “He could see the potential outcomes, and he could see the fact that this community was screaming out for hope, and jobs.” The support was returned. “The community saw the need, and saw that it aligned with the kind of marine history that [local iwi] Whakatōhea here have.”
This ongoing collaboration between council and local iwi has been crucial to the project’s success. Both Aileen and Lyn stress that this hasn’t come from legislative requirements, but a genuine desire to work together. “It's been more of a partnership than let's ‘engage’ or ‘consult’,” says Aileen. “All that language around 'give effect to' or 'take into account' or 'uphold the principles' - that stuff sits in the background. But this is about community, and it's about what's good for the community,” she says. “We've appreciated that local government has levers it can pull, but iwi have levers they can pull. And if we do it together, it's far more effective.”
“Authentic partnership is actually believing that the right thing is working collaboratively and collectively to get things better,” says Lyn. “That isn't just about iwi and council, it's also about the businesses, and it's also about the social services organisations. And it's about the government agencies.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, and much of the project’s first ten years were spent getting the project through the various consents and court cases. “It's been a lot of hurdles,” says Aileen. “Lots and lots of them. But there's always a way through them, around them, under them, over them.”
One of these hurdles was actually getting the project funded, which was the following decade’s focus. A big issue was that government agencies tend to fund things directly aligned with their remits, but this project didn’t fit neatly into any of them. “What we found was each siloed ministry couldn't fund it,” says Aileen. Instead, the project required a broader look at the value it would bring. “What we needed was an across the government consideration,” she says, “But none of the ministries look across all [the aspects of] wellbeing.” In the end, it took an invitation from Bill English for them to make a Better Business Case to ultimately help secure funding.
More recently, Ōpōtiki have made the most of post-Covid funding to maximise not only the Harbour Transformation project specifically, but also a range of other projects that align with it. They’ve built Te Tāhuhu o Te Rangi, a new library and community hub, in part to help upskill the community in preparation for entering the workforce. They’ve upgraded their local skatepark, which also helped ensure local concrete operators were running and able to deliver the concrete needed for the harbour build. They’re also redesigning the city centre so that it looks towards the harbour, and working with Whakatōhea to come up with art installations that will sit at the harbour entrance. “All our post-Covid funding is all stitched together into a community plan,” Lyn says. “None of it was random. None of these were lolly scrambles. It was all very deliberate.”
It’s this sort of holistic thinking and planning that is key to ensuring the ongoing sustainability of both the Harbour Project and the district. “For the last six years, the focus has been around the collective table with iwi, businesses, social organisations, and ourselves,” Lyn says, “asking, how do we create jobs? How do we get the people trained to be in them? How do we hold them? What are the flow on effects of what we're creating? What else do we need to focus on? How do we look after the workforce? And all of those things have been planned, as we've thought through what needed to be done.”
Lyn notes that the relationships they’ve cultivated over the years have been a huge part of the project’s success. “From a relationship point of view, you often understand better. So you sit in the same room, you hear, you're with the people that you're working with, and helping to move something forward.”
Building these relationships, and getting people to see the bigger picture, may have been challenging at times. “When you're in Opotiki, your perspective is very much that you're at the ends of the earth,” Aileen says. “Nobody ever comes here.” But as the Harbour Transformation Project, set to finish building in July, proves, they’ve more than pulled it off. “We have gained the backing of government, and we've certainly put the work in in order to gain that trust,” Lyn says. “But also, we deliver.”