Economic Development Agency will add ‘grunt’ to economy

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Watching efforts to fire up Waikato’s economic performance is a bit like waiting for a bus. Nothing for ages then they all arrive at once.

In recent weeks another two self-improvement vehicles, promising genuine stopovers in every corner of the region’s economy, have hit the road.

If you’re still struggling to sort the Waikato Plan from Waikato Means Business and myriad business chambers of commerce and council economic development agencies, be not further muddled.

The newcomers aim to simplify, amplify and streamline the region’s economic and social development initiatives while leaving existing players to get on with it.

But both are calling on Waikato Inc to get aboard.

One is a proposal for an over-arching Waikato economic development agency – with grunt.

The other is up and running. Agenda Waikato is an incorporated society solely business-focused and led. It promises to engage with other Waikato groups, including local and central government, to achieve results for the good of the whole region, based on solid evidence and quality research. Fronted by businessman Graham Dwyer, it has already commissioned Waikato University to do a full SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats study) and “balance sheet” of the region.

The economic development agency (EDA) would take over from Waikato Means Business, a 20 year economic development strategy created with input from regional business leaders. Efforts to rally support and funding for the EDA are being fronted by business entrepreneur Dallas Fisher, chairman of Waikato Means Business. (WMB was set up by the regional council more than two years ago, ahead of the Waikato Plan. Fisher was invited on more recently to give it some oomph. He describes WMB as the economic development subset of the Waikato Plan.)

The EDA would work with Agenda Waikato, chambers of commerce, council economic development agencies and local people, Mr Fisher says. “We’re not there to eat their lunch.”

The idea is the EDA would address Waikato Inc’s rather feeble investment in itself, and chase government money that is available for regional economic development but not utilised here.

Mr Fisher says WMB’s work shows Waikato’s investment in economic development (excluding Taupo) is just $20 per capita or 1.1 percent of local government spend, compared to the national average of $36 or 2.1 percent.

“So we spend half the money everyone else spends on economic development. We need to get this thing properly set up and funded. The second big point is the government has money for economic development but it hasn’t been investing on a major basis in Waikato.”

He says that’s because we don’t have an over-arching plan or speak with one voice on what we need. The Waikato is a very big region with multiple local authorities. Last year the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment gave the Waikato just $85,000. This financial year Mr Fisher wants $518,000.

The government offers two sorts of regional development money: dollar for dollar co-funding of sub-regional projects and funding for major projects that will change the economic landscape eg. its $10 million support for building a port at Opotiki. Mr Fisher says South Waikato, whose economic status is of concern to the government, is in line for the first category of funding.

Research is needed to identify a priority major project for the Waikato.

“Our job will be to find out and get the capital to make it happen with the government as one of our partners.”

The nucleus of the new EDA would be Waikato Innovation Park. Owned by Hamilton City Council, the park is looking for a private investor buyer as the council can’t afford its expansion plans. Five economic development specialists from the park will be the EDA’s foundation staff. They’ll be funded by Callaghan Innovation and NZ Trade and Enterprise. Another six staff would be recruited.

“This thing needs grunt but it’s about local focus, local people, local communities. We’ll be putting people out in the regions to help councils’ own economic development people go to the next level,” says Mr Fisher.
WMB currently has one part-timer who is snowed with work, he says, while Waikato District Council is overwhelmed with opportunities.

The nucleus of the new economic development agency would be Waikato Innovation Park.

The EDA would need $2 million a year for projects and staff. That would come from local government, business and various trusts.

Mr Fisher is “really encouraged” by the response of councils so far to his presentations.

The suggestion for business support is that an enterprise with more than 100 employees could be asked for an annual grant of $10,000 to $15,000. Those with under 100 employees could join for $1000.

On the trust front, WEL Trust is supportive, Mr Fisher says.

“It’s about turning $1 into $4, getting $4 worth of grunt and value out of your dollar. Business has largely stayed away from this stuff, yet it is the core of it.

“There will be no one dominant funder and it will not be Hamilton-centric. This is about everyone working together. That’s how we’ll make this happen.”

The EDA would have a board of five business people and one or two local government representatives. Meanwhile Agenda Waikato has been offered two seats on the WMB board.

Mr Fisher says the Waikato needs to speak with one voice to the government.

“You can’t have 10 groups talking to MBIE. It’s about showing we’re organised, we’re focused. That we’re talking with one voice with all these groups in behind us, and we’re saying this is what the Waikato wants.”

Mr Dwyer from Agenda Waikato isn’t convinced one voice is imperative “but singing the same song is incredibly important”.

He sees the job of Agenda Waikato as holding elected “feet to the fire”. “We need to ensure our MPs are working for us, an EDA can’t do that. We need to make sure our councils are working together and hold them to account.”

Mr Dwyer also ruled out Hamilton-centric leanings.

“We need room and scope for good people to contribute. If people have ideas, passion and energy we want to hear from them. We need people to stand up.”

Mr Dwyer says he doesn’t know how long Agenda Waikato will last.

It could be as long as its first research effort or for 10 studies. The acid test, he says, will be whether it is judged by Waikato business to be effective and insightful.

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Andrea Fox is a business journalist, a former Waikato Times business editor, Fairfax Business Bureau journalist and author. Andrea.fox@xtra.co.nz

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