Real plans to expand an oil refinery and an electricity network. Realised plans to turn Whangarei into this country’s first fully UFB-enabled city. Ambitious plans to create a $125 million data centre. Rumoured plans to lobby for a deepwater port to rival Auckland. And speculative plans to create a latter day Eldorado by realising potential for mineral extraction. From some vantage points across Northland the echoes of New Zealand’s ‘Think Big’ economic strategy of four decades ago can still be heard persistently, if faintly. Albeit with a distinctly private sector timbre.
That’s timbre, not timber. For if the protagonists of these and other potential grands projets have their way, Northland’s economy will swing away from primary production towards a far more diverse base.
With the exception of the drive to bring UFB to Whangarei, Refining NZ’s expansion of its Marsden Point refinery, and Top Energy’s decade-long, $260 million network expansion plan, most of these initiatives are still on, or barely off, the drawing board. If Northland is ever to realise their potential a lot of convincing, explaining, debating – and probably a bit of coercion – still needs to happen.
One of the greatest obstacles will be New Zealand’s crippling parochialism.
One of the greatest obstacles, I believe, will be New Zealand’s crippling parochialism. The belief that if it’s not planned for Canterbury, Wellington, Auckland or the Golden Triangle it will never work and simply should not receive the kiss of life. Witness the incredulity among many in Auckland that ‘their’ port should ever be anything other than that massive eyesore spreading relentlessly into the Waitemata.
The mindset that spawns sneering references to the unnecessary extravagance of a ‘Holiday Highway’ linking the region to the rest of the country – as if a First World transport infrastructure is somehow surplus to the economic requirements of the ‘Brown North’.
Negative perceptions around the region’s suitability for investment will need to be addressed, too. And some pretty persistent demons must be laid to rest before visions of a massive business park at Marsden Point, using the hundreds of hectares of cheap, flat land adjacent to the country’s only deep-water port, can be realised.
A good summary of the challenges involved, and some of the opportunities too, can be found in the strategic plan of the Northland Energy Forum. Granted, this is purely the Energy sector’s take on the region’s potential but other sectors would have a similar outlook.
The role for public relations, communication and reputation management in this mix is massive. Community relations, internal communication, stakeholder liaison, issues management, crisis communication and media familiarisation are just a few of the more obvious areas.
Potential on the inward investment side of the fence is also huge. Sectoral co-ordination (with more than a passing nod to NEF); communication that caters to the cultural mores of potential investors from different parts of the world; iwi speaking with a single voice; clear and consistent messaging from District and Regional Councils; and straightforward development proposals.
Due North is in the enviable position of being ‘on the ground’. We didn’t plan it that way – we’re based here so we can service organisations and industries across New Zealand while enjoying the leisure and recreational bounty of the Bay of Islands. But the upshot is that we’re already being drawn into discussions around some of these initiatives. And other opportunities which aren’t mine to reveal. Yet.
Will the region grasp the nettle and do what it needs to do? How best to deal with the parochialism? Can we overcome the idea that the North should be forever designated as a holiday playground for the rest of the country? Will other sectors unite in the same way as the energy sector, to force the pace of change?
For now, at least, the excitement is palpable. Those plans might still be years – even decades – from fruition but there’s a feeling that, at last, something is stirring in the land of the taniwha.