“We’re not like a lot of provicial centres, which are only service centres. Napier has a mini metropolitan feel.” Barbara Arnott, Napier Mayor

She’s a glamorous gal, no doubt about it. Attractive, vibrant and always keen to party, she has a style and confidence her more conservative sister across the river would love to emulate.

She’s not backward in self-promotion either. “Unique” is a word she loves to use. Her unique identity, unique character, unique … well, everything.

Our gal clearly isn’t unique in the true sense of the word, apart from the GPS co-ordinates that denote her place on the globe, but that’s mere detail. We won’t fuss her about it. We’ll go along with her in spirit; take a look at what’s going on in her life. In fact, it’s no secret that when the visitors have departed she becomes a bit of a home girl — self-contained and fiercely independent; happy to shut the door and curl up with her own company.

We know her finances aren’t as tightfisted as she likes people to think (she owes $52 million, not $5 million), but she’s not about to let that cramp her style, and she’s made it quite clear that suitors in marriage, however convenient, will never be welcome.

On the surface, it seems our party girl is happy, healthy and secure in herself. But is she?

“I don’t know whether we’re unique, but people are proud to live in Napier and say they are connected to it,” says mayor Barbara Arnott. “We know how to party and how to protest. When we lost the hospital, 30,000 marched in protest.”

Arnott says Napier has grown on the foundations of culture, museums and science laid by its early European settlers. “Napier’s got a unique built environment,” she says. “We’re not like a lot of provincial centres, which are only service centres. Napier has a minimetropolitan feel.”

Arnott’s sense of Napier as an exceptionally special place is well known, so it surprised the socks off some when, on July 4, American Independence Day, she and her 12 councillors used the word ‘unique’ to include Hastings – or rather, Napier’s autonomous co-existence with Hastings.

It turned out to be an aberration.

“Hawke’s Bay has a unique advantage (in New Zealand) with the twin vibrant cities of Napier and Hastings which both enjoy distinct and different identities,” they said in a unanimous statement.

“Variety and choice have been identified as significant economic strengths which should be exploited in our region, rather than ‘dumbed down’ to no real choice,” they said, before concluding: “the council unanimously agree that there seems to be little to gain and much to lose by introducing the question of amalgamation at this time.”

And that was that. Napier’s response to an independent poll showing 39% support and 13% neutrality among its residents for a political marriage of convenience with the Hastings District and Hawke’s Bay Regional councils.

There was to be no discussion between Napier City Council and its citizens, no public discussion among the elected mayor and councillors, and no discussion – public or private – with the proposer of amalgamation, Hastings mayor Lawrence Yule. The rejection slip – vaguely worded but betraying barely-concealed anger (“dumbed down” ?!) – was flung in Yule’s direction from the barricaded turrets of Napier City Castle.

Yule will not give up. He has cash donations, Trojans within the walls of Napier, and the numbers to get the Local Government Commission involved. The conversation will begin, with or without NCC.

Inside the castle

But that aside, this incident was an example of the insularity that some critics accuse the NCC of. There are grumblings that Arnott and the council’s chief executive, Neil Taylor, run such a tight ship that no one else has much input into anything; that council meetings have become rubber-stamping exercises for deals and decisions already made behind closed doors.

Former city councillor David Bosley says that after three years as an elected representative at the council table he felt disempowered, disappointed and disillusioned. “Napier’s a great place to live,” he says. “But the council’s not people-friendly. Councillors don’t initiate anything. By the time anything gets to the council it’s a fait accompli.” That appens because Napier residents allow it to, he says. “The people are apathetic. They’ve got to get off their bums.”

Current city councillor Maxine Boag says Arnott and Taylor are a strong team and good for the city. “Yes, they do run a tight ship. Look at Napier. It’s well run with good infrastructure.”

Boag is very happy with the way things are, although she does admit that not all councillors have a grasp of everything they are voting on, that not everything is debated at official meetings, and she sometimes feels a little powerless. “The council is a big machine. At first I felt like a cog. There are sub-committees and processes, checks and balances. I just remember that I’m there to serve.”

“We get a lot of information sent to us. There are a lot of things I haven’t got my head around. We tend to select areas of interest and focus on those. We are given a lot of freedom to pick and choose. I focus more into my ward. Other people have a much better grasp of the financials and some of those areas.”

What about the bigger picture?

“We do debate, although not everything. I don’t like to feel I’m rubberstamping. I ask a lot of questions
and I do challenge things I don’t necessarily agree with, but I pick my battles.”

Boag’s ward of Maraenui – aka The Nui – is Napier’s underbelly, scoring highly in every measure of deprivation and dysfunction; home to gangs and a large proportion of the city’s crime.

The suburb has been ignored and neglected by successive city councils, says Boag. She hopes that within the next year its shopping centre will get a morale-boosting facelift with some new lights, toilets and fencing. “They don’t need a whole lot of people to run their lives. They just need to know people are listening and care,” she says.

Shaking the Parade

Farther across town, heavy trucks shake the foundations of Mon Logis Hotel up to 1200 times a day. Weighing up to 50 tonnes when laden with fertiliser, containers, tallow, wood chips, cement, petrol, apples, logs or other cargo destined for the Port of Napier, trucks and trailers bounce, crash and thunder their way along Marine Parade at any time of the day or night.

They travel through part of the CBD, splitting city from beach, and pass just metres from homes with big picture windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean. These homes are in a stretch of real estate that in many other cities would be a Millionaire’s Row with limited traffic and safe, easy access to a welldeveloped foreshore.

Gerard Averous, the owner of Mon Logis and a member of the Marine Parade Environment Society, has been fighting for 10 years to get the council to ban heavy trucks from the parade. Fellow members Richard Barfoot and Anne Foreman say Marine Parade is not a state highway and should not be sacrificed to heavy trucks that could use the expressway and Ahuriri bypass to get to the port.

Barfoot says the society pleads for decisive action every year, but the council always says it cannot do anything until some other project is completed, and that other project always seems to depend on funds from central government.

According to Arnott, Napier’s CBD is “the commercial heart of the East Coast of the North Island”. Asked to elucidate, she stated, “Napier has historically been the retail-commercial area of choice and we strive to keep it that way.”

Murray Douglas, chief executive of the Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce, says it’s “ridiculous” to compare retail statistics between Napier and Hastings, because a petrol price rise or a big sale in a retail store can distort the figures.

“The big one is Hawke’s Bay,” he says.

Ahuriri: Hawke’s Bay Monte Carlo

Upstart Ahuriri

However, retailers in the CBD are no different from those anywhere else in the country. Times are tough, and the CBD has new competition from trendy Ahuriri.

One of the oldest parts of the city, and rubbing shoulders with the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council-owned Port of Napier, Ahuriri is blessed with a picturesque marina and the best beaches in Napier. It is also becoming a hot spot for new retail and accommodation, entertainment and recreation.

On a freezing cold day in the July school holidays, the fast food restaurant right on the beach is packed with noisy families. The window in the dining area frames up a flat grey sea overhung with layers of grey clouds blending with a grey landscape. The only point of contrast is the white smoke billowing from Pan Pac’s pulp mill across the bay. As the first hard drops of rain fall, an elderly man with a Nordic walking pole in one hand and a portable radio in the other quickens his stride along the boardwalk.

Back over the hill in the CBD, it’s easy to find a park. Shoppers are sparse, and shop staff are chatting.

Meg Rodell, manager of Napier Inner City Marketing, says some are doing well, but many are struggling. Even the July school holidays didn’t yield their usual sales pick-up. “Winter is generally quieter in Napier because we are a tourist destination. Things have tapered off since Easter, which is normal, but it has been particularly quiet during winter. There are a lot of people around, but they’re not spending. You don’t see people with bags and bags of purchases like we used to.”

Tourism reigns

Arnott has tourists in her sights. “Tourism is a core business for this council. It’s really important to this city.
We are increasingly reliant on it. We aren’t a manufacturing city. Our jobs are mostly in the service industry, so if we can make it more and more attractive for visitors, we will do that.”

Two of the city’s most-photographed ‘residents’ are Pania the Maori maiden, and the golden Spirit of Napier .

Pania, created with silicon bronze, was unveiled in 1954, shot at in 1982, and stolen from her plinth in 2005. She smiles serenely, beloved as ever. Down the road, the golden Spirit of Napier is in trouble. Only 40, but made of inferior gunmetal bronze, she’s contracted a bad case of bronze rot and has to be removed from her prominent perch to see a doctor. If her illness is terminal she’ll be replaced, for Art Deco is the stand-out tourist attraction in Napier, and she is its stylish symbol.

Art Deco, internationally fashionable in 1931 when Napier was destroyed in the earthquake, was the style of choice for rebuilding much of the inner city. Many buildings were subsequently butchered in the name of ‘modernisation’ before resident Robert McGregor looked around him one day and realised what a wonderful asset his city had. Architecture tours, dress-ups, nostalgic music, vintage cars, tea parties, dinners and dancing now draw in locals and thousands of visitors each year.

Nevertheless, Stuart McLaughlin, president of the Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce, is concerned about Napier’s apparent dependence on tourism. Jobs in that industry tend to be low-paid and lowskilled, he says, and the number of tourists coming to Napier or wider Hawke’s Bay is not going to pick up exponentially unless some mega money is invested.

“Tourism is an important component but it’s not the main driver of economic development in Hawke’s Bay. All the main tourism centres have a particular attraction that people want to go there for. Hawke’s Bay has a lot, but it is not unique enough to make tourism a really huge thing without some significant investment in something to make people want to come.”

Businessman and philanthropist Rodney Green is furious that Marineland was closed permanently after its last dolphin died. The council should have invited Sea World in Florida to become a minority partner in a massive redevelopment of the marine attraction, he says. There are a lot of ways it could have been done. “You don’t need jumping dolphins.”

He has another bone to pick with the council – leasehold land. NCC owns about 80 commercial leasehold sites, many prime waterfront, and approximately 50 residential sites – another windfall from the 1931 earthquake, which lifted large parts of Napier out of the sea.

Council policy is to retain the cash-generating commercial land, but Green and McLaughlin say it’s time to rethink.

Businesses are not going to invest money redeveloping dilapidated old buildings on leasehold land, with the risk of rent shocks every time their lease expires. McLaughlin says he knows of two big overseas investment opportunities lost to Napier because of this.

“It’s [leasehold land] not a big issue for us,” Arnott says. “It’s important for the city to retain it.”

Infrastructure time bomb?

There’s also the issue of what’s under the ground. Bosley says decades of under-spending on basic infrastructure have left Napier with a capital works time bomb. Some households are still getting their water through asbestos-lined water pipes (condemned in some studies as carcinogenic), while old landfills under Onekawa are laden with toxins and sinking. The subsidence ruined two large public swimming pools demolished in February, he says.

“Rubbish,” says Neil Taylor. A large pool full of water sitting on pipes laid on estuarine sub-soils 40 years ago is bound to have problems. The council had heard stories about the pools being built above an old landfill, and investigated when the pool was removed. “We were looking for problems but we didn’t find any.” He doesn’t know anything about subsidence on private properties.

As for asbestos pipes, like other cities around the world, Napier has many, but they present no known health problems. “Ingested asbestos is a fibre that passes through the body; inhaled asbestos is the dangerous form,” Taylor says.

Arnott admits Onekawa does have a landfill toxin problem. Wellington consultants Pattle Dellamore have analysed some of the landfill material, and “it is clear already from the consultants’ advice that the old landfill should not be disturbed”. Work is now being done to “determine the area of risk”.

She rejects Bosley’s claim of a capital works backlog. “Since 1988 we have had comprehensive asset plans for all our infrastructure. We have confidence that everything under the ground and under the roads is robust and well looked after. We don’t have any areas needing huge money.”

However, she does admit to a significant list of “planned works” to upgrade drainage in Taradale, Marewa-Pirimai, and the CBD. Staff comments on submissions to this year’s annual plan say Taradale alone needs $9 million worth of stormwater work, and that addressing the three problem areas “will require significant works and take some time to complete”. First up will be the CBD. During the next three years, pipes will be installed to capture stormwater run-off from the hill.

Since 1998, every Napier household has paid a levy of $48 to pre-fund a new sewage treatment system. The council is now seeking consent to build a $30 million bio-trickle filter plant at Awatoto. “Almost all the $30m will be there,” when called upon, Arnott says.

In three years, the new $18 million museum and art gallery will be completed. Ratepayers will put up a third of the cash, central government another third, and the rest will come from the public. Arnott is still fundraising.

The hardest question to get a straight answer to is that concerning Napier’s debt.

Public (mis)conception is that it is only $4-5 million.

Arnott says Napier has $4 million of external debt, and “a low rate of internal debt that will rise in the next few years because of the museum and art gallery”. And the actual amount of internal debt? Mrs Arnott doesn’t have that figure at her fingertips.

The council’s annual plan for 2011/12 puts it at $47.9 million, which gives a combined internal and external debt of $52m. Put simply, internal borrowing means the council has borrowed from the grocery jar to put new tyres on the car, but eventually will have to replace the grocery money — maybe from the holiday jar (more internal borrowing), or perhaps a bank loan (external borrowing).

Murray Douglas says the crucial thing for Hawke’s Bay’s future – not just Napier’s or Hastings’ — is to attract more people. Economic health will flow from that.

Arnott expects Napier to grow by 8,200 people during the next 35 years. “That’s very slow growth. If Napier got 2% growth we’d be happy. We could definitely take more people, but that’s not the reality of New Zealand.” People choose to live in Napier wherever they work in Hawke’s Bay, she says. “We have the best weather in New Zealand, and despite the fact it’s on a transport limb, it’s becoming increasingly attractive in lifestyle terms.”

Speaking of lifestyle, what is Napier doing to prepare for a future of climate change and increasingly expensive energy?

Arnott nominated:

  • We are prepared for high tides and floods with our stormwater systems.
  • We have a pathway network throughout the city. In 10 years we will have 50 km of pathways for biking and walking so everyone is within easy distance of an easy walkway.
  • Another sewer line will go in from the CBD to Awatoto, so if one fails we have another.
  • We are fast moving to digitisation of our CBD.

So Napier is starting to think about the future, although perhaps not yet focused on the wider horizon.

Some weeks ago, Napier-Wairoa’s elected MP, Chris Tremain, published an open letter in which he pleaded for discussion about some form of united regional strategy .

Tremain underscored that “total amalgamation is just one option”, and not one he is necessarily advocating. “All I ask is that we don’t bury our heads in the sand without having the debate. Personally I believe that there really is a bigger picture out there for our province just waiting to be grabbed,” he concluded.

Perhaps our gal read the letter. But is she persuaded? Will she keep the door locked, or will she pull back the drapes and take a look at the wider horizon her neighbours keep talking about?

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

  1. There will always be far more locals than visitors in Napier at any time of year and we cannot expect the city’s economy or vibrancy to be saved by tourists if we don’t look after our own community first.

    Napier’s CBD has been horribly quiet. Hide and seek prose on walls and tree cozies won’t bring the people of Napier into their own central city during the day, let alone after 5pm when the bulk of businesses close and what activity in Napier’s CBD is left evaporates.

    Nothing remains open because no one is in town and no one is in town because nothing remains open. This has been the case ever since seven-day trading started in the 90’s. It is something NICM has tried and failed to reverse for more than a decade. Instead of throwing big-ticket items like the projection art concept that recently fell at the financial hurdle at the problem, hoping to attract big-spending tourists, why not organize smaller events with more of a local focus for the central city in the evenings and weekends?

    With the inordinate number of clothing stores in town, why not have a Napier Fashion Week? Local fashion houses and retailers could show their wares in an evening fashion show that uses the road section of Emerson Street as the catwalk. Get local school and EIT fashion, drama and art students involved as designers, models and production engineers in an outdoor show that fuses wearable / edible / recycled art and fashion all with a Napier flavor.

    Speaking of flavor, rather than the horribly mono-cultural image suggested for the city, how about some diversity? I’ve been to the Diwali festivals held at the Soundshell and thought they were a wonderful, exotic mix of music, food and color that the city sees far too little of. Why not let Napier’s Indian community have a parade, or a street party to celebrate their festival? Or Maori, Chinese or Pacific Island communities for that matter? Imagine a big “Pacifica” style event staged at the Soundshell, throughout the central city and along Marine Parade over a weekend and how many people it could bring into town.

    We have a great climate for these sorts of outdoor events and the Soundshell is massively under-used. Even Napier Inner City Marketing’s spokeswoman (there has never been a spokes-man I noted recently to someone linked to the organization – I was told men have applied, but none had the skillsets required.. hmm.. No one asked me!) has said so. As they run the Great Long Lunch right next to it once a year, wouldn’t events staged there fall, at least partially, under their jurisdiction?

    Targeting the local community would provide a more regular, long term source of custom and income to encourage businesses to open later and locals to come into town for sunset shopping, a late-night latte, or moonlight mocha. If that was to work (and history has shown it to be a big ‘if’) then bigger ideas may be worth investigating, but it is not something to start off with.

    There. I’ve just come up with a few ideas for free and for public opinion. They may not be overly original, expensive or sensationally attractive to an international audience. But they are Napier based and Napier focused. They are newer than 1931 and would benefit and empower Napier people, groups and businesses adding to the city’s sense of pride which would shine through to anyone visiting the city. They are also the sorts of things our central city has not seen for a long time. Somewhere, someone must have been getting paid well to not come up with this sort of stuff.

  2. Ideas are easy Andrew, the proof is in the doing. You seem passionate about Napier and always happy to share your opinion. Why don't you focus that, try organising one of the events you suggest and in the process show everyone how it's done?

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