The first staging post has been reached in a project set to have a major impact on Te Awamutu.
June saw the awarding of the design contract for Te Ara Wai, a museum and discovery centre to be built in the heart of the town.
The replacement for the current museum will create a more interactive space with enhanced display of taonga such as Uenuku, which featured in the 1984 Te Māori exhibition, and with connections to surrounding heritage sites.
Placed at the heart of a significant historical area, it is poised to be an important component in the development of cultural tourism throughout Waikato.
In the immediate surrounds, Market Street is likely to become a hospitality precinct and a link to the main retail area in Alexandra Street, and accommodation providers should see a noticeable uptick in visitors.
External funding is still being sought for the new museum, initially through the Provincial Growth Fund, to get the most from the project. Regardless of that outcome, with $7.2 million set aside by Waipā District Council, construction will go ahead and the museum is set to open in early 2022.
Stage one of the design contract, won by Wellington firm Studio Pacific Architecture, will start in July.
“Te Ara Wai will be fabulous for visitors, tourists and locals to have an expanded delivery of the Waipā story,” says district council business development manager Steve Tritt.
He says visitors will be able to experience the stories of the New Zealand wars in a vibrant exhibition space and then visit historic sites such as Lake Ngaroto and Maungatautari, using mobile apps to get further insights. “We see it as a kind of hub and spoke.”
Tritt says there are likely to be opportunities around hosting and bus tours on top of the uplift in spending on accommodation, retail and hospitality.
“It’s a great New Zealand story,” he says. “It’s a story that can be started in Rangiriri as people are coming down. There’s a real richness about the multiple sites and it’s a story whose time has come to be told publicly.”
Waipā Mayor Jim Mylchreest says Te Ara Wai will attract a lot of people into the town.
“Whether it be iwi tourist groups or general commercial tourism, the opportunities will be there. If we attract the people, then it’s over to the business sector to get in and optimise the value for themselves and the community.”
He says the council has been “blown away” by the level of engagement within the local community and nationally with telling the stories of the Land Wars and the heritage around Waipā.
Tritt says Te Awamutu is already increasing tourism numbers from visitors accessing Waitomo and the Ōtorohanga Kiwi House. “Most of them are coming through Te Awamutu, and when the Hamilton expressway is completed, coming past the airport to Waitomo will be the easy route.”
Te Ara Wai will be an addition to a town that is already thriving, with housing affordability and location cited by local business owners.
Work is underway on a 7ha industrial park on Bond Road, with stage one already sold and stage two titles to be issued later in the year, and earthworks are also being done on residential growth cells on the town’s outskirts.
Among those benefiting from the building activity both in the town and through the region, as Waipā’s economy grows faster than the national average, are Te Awamutu companies Waikato Construction Management and The
Currently at 45 full-time staff, Waikato Construction Management, utilising Coresteel, is looking to recruit five qualified staff at the moment – all from a base of just two when founders Trina and Gary White set up the company 11 years ago.
They were joined by fellow director John Morrow in 2013 with the focus of expanding in the design and build commercial market, and were the first in the country to buy regional rights to the Coresteel
Their commercial and Industrial buildings can be seen throughout the region. They are nearing completion on a Webbline build at Titanium Park, and are also underway with St John’s College’s new three-storey gymnasium in Hamilton. Stihl Shop Te Awamutu, Storage King at Sharpe Road and NZ Trucks’ new facilities on Arthur Porter Drive are among their showpieces, and in spring they will start on the new Ōhaupō sports and community centre.
Rapid growth has seen them shift four years ago from premises in Market Street to their current Churchill Street site, where they are already close to capacity.
“Waikato is a really positive region to be in, it’s exciting, dynamic,” says Trina White.
“We believe in the town, we think there are some solid networks. We see a thriving business community.”
She anticipates healthy growth in the town over the next five to 10 years. “There’s a lot of people invested in the town and I really do believe it’s a positive place to be,” she says.
“We believe the museum will have a significant positive impact on town, as has the library upgrade. Onwards and upwards for TA, we reckon.”
The Concrete People general manager Gareth Carter echoes her sentiments. His Bond Road firm has been growing since it was formed by a merger of Wrathall and Lord 18 months ago. It has 20 staff and Carter says they think they can probably double that. They have projects around the region as far south as Taupō and also in Bay of Plenty and Auckland, and have Fosters in Hamilton as a major client. That sees them involved in the APL build at Hautapu, a job so big that they will share it with an Auckland concrete firm.
Carter says Te Awamutu is well placed and the completed expressway will also help.
“Like most of TA now, we’ve got fibre to the door, it’s easy to get in and out of, it’s a small enough town to get around but still has everything you need. It’s got all the big players for your suppliers, a good farming community.”
Those farming roots are never far away, as trucks travel along the town centre’s main street to and from the Fonterra factory, to the frustration of some, but welcomed by many, including Red Kitchen owner Megan Priscott.
Her business, on the corner of Market and Mahoe Streets, and directly opposite the site of the planned museum, has forged ahead since she and husband Mat opened it in 2010, expanding 18 months ago with an addition built by Waikato Construction
Now employing 32 staff across businesses that include a recently opened satellite outlet in Hamilton, she says affordability is one of the key factors for people moving to Te Awamutu.
“You get a lot of bang for your buck from housing developments.”
That includes a recently employed staff member who moved up from Wellington, and also includes the brother of an Auckland based rep for their aromatherapy range. He and his wife and children were returning to New Zealand after living overseas for 20 years. They bought a house in Te Awamutu after never having been to the town. Priscott says they researched affordability and sent his parents down to look around the town and get a feel for it. “They said, yeah, it’s a good little town, they could get a new house.”
She tells the story of an electrician moving down from Auckland to open a business. “They got a nicer house, it was easier to get around. All the problems Auckland was posing, TA solved.”
Red Kitchen is consistently busy, partly drawing, like the rest of the town, from a large hinterland.
“It’s like a regional hub,” Tritt says. “People are shopping from Waitomo, Ōtorohanga, because you can come here, you’ve got Countdown, Pak ‘n’ Save, Bin Inn, Mitre 10, you’ve got lawyers and accountants. So you can do a lot of your business here and still have fabulous places to go for meals and places to meet. There are quite a lot of designer stores as well, really good merchandise in town.”
Around the corner on Market Street, The Good PA owner Chantelle Good, who is chair of the Te Awamutu Chamber of Commerce, reinforces Tritt’s comments.
“Business here is doing really well,” she says. “We’ve had a few empty shops lately but there are more stores going in.”
Her four-year-old business, which offers services including web design, administration and book keeping, is one of those thriving.
She started the business solo from her house and it has been slowly growing. She moved into the Market Street office two years ago and now has five staff, with the goal of reaching 12. That will give her two non-billable staff and will mean the business can run without her. “I can pop in on clients, add extra value and then start another business.”
When she does, it will definitely be in Te Awamutu, the town she grew up in.
“I like to be part of the community and give back.”
That includes holding a community day each year in which they provide their services to a charity free of charge.
She says they market only to Waikato because face-to-face relationships create longer lasting relationships.
“We want to be the best, the biggest in Waikato,” she says.
“I love everything about business. For me getting to work with a different range of businesses has been like a dream come true.”
One of those she has helped, through the firm’s community day, is Mathematics for a Lifetime Charitable Trust.
Its founder, former school teacher Jean McKenzie, operates both the trust and the Impact Tutoring business from premises just up from The Good PA.
Hers is also a relatively new business, started five years ago, and growing. Impact Tutoring, which offers tuition for school students, now has 122 students and 14 tutors. She operates a 1:2 ratio and works with schools to teach the New Zealand curriculum.
“I think the exciting thing is there are businesses here that have been here a very long time but there’s still a place for new businesses to come in,” says McKenzie.
“As a new business you have to be very professional, you have to have a profile, you make a profile by being available, by being involved in things as well.”
The mathematics trust, set up three years ago to help children from lower income families, was a two-times winner at last year’s Waipā Business Awards, for excellence in small business and for Excellence in Sustainability & Community Contribution
McKenzie was helped by Chamber of Commerce chief executive Kris Anderson in setting up the trust. Taking such a step is, she says, a “very, very big journey” and the business recognition was a thrill.
She sources money where she can and the trust has helped 58 students so far.
“Jean is very representative of what we are seeing in Te Awamutu as a whole,” Anderson says. “An individual in employment, stable job, strong connections within the community, taking a risk to start a business. And within a five, six-year period the development’s been really quick. She works not just in these offices but on a regional basis.”
Crowded town centre
Like many others a supporter of Te Ara Wai, Anderson nevertheless sounds a note of caution over the town’s development.
He says the Chamber’s main frustration is around what he sees as the lack of follow-through on an overview plan for the centre of town, particularly Alexandra Street, and problems with parking.
“One of the biggest frustrations for retailers and businesses as a whole is that their clients can’t actually find any parking to get into their business,” he says.
That matters in a rural town where customers have an expectation that they will be able to park close to their destination.
“It has a huge impact for those small retail businesses, which are the heart of this community,” Anderson says. “It is having a bad effect on their bottom line, it is impacting their ability to employ that extra half staff member or get themselves out of the [day to day]business so they can focus more on how they grow the business.”
He says there was a promise council would get back to them late last year with what it is looking to do around public transport and parking.
Mylchreest acknowledges parking is one of the top five issues that gets raised with him. “It’s a great problem to have. If the town’s busy and the parks are all being used up it means there’s some activity going on.”
The council has just bought an area for carparking at the back of the Te Awamutu Workingmen’s Club, he says, and roading staff are due to report back, probably in July, on parking issues. He says it is likely that enforcement of parking time restrictions will be a major part of any solution, possibly along with encouragement of alternative transport such as bikes and e-scooters for staff who work in the town centre. A multi-storey carpark building is unlikely, as is a bus service around town, given the economics of both of those options in a town with a population of about 14,000. Similarly, he thinks the town is a “long way from a park and ride scenario”.
“A lot of the business owners are their own worst enemy in that they park in those customer carparks on an all-day basis,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mylchreest describes the town’s growth as steady and manageable.
“The demand for residential property in town is high at the moment,” he says. Helping meet that demand is a Pirongia Road development where earthworks are being done along with another on Cambridge Road, and he cites the potential for the racecourse to be converted into housing. There has been a lot of infill in Kihikihi since sewerage infrastructure was put in about seven years ago, he says.
As for the area where Te Ara Wai is destined to go, Mylchreest says it has a great opportunity to become a community centre.
“We don’t want to adversely impact the main commercial area, we want to link the two.”
Tritt says the discussion during the last long-term plan was around the development as a way of invigorating the town centre and creating a public realm adjacent to the main street.
It would be a precinct taking in the children’s playground, rose garden, river, library and events centre, with streetscaping to be done on the surrounding roads.
Mylchreest says the swelling numbers of school visits to the current museum, along with community buy-in and a growing national support for telling the stories, created the possibility for a bigger project than the council could fund on its own.
“Potentially there’s two risks: you build it and they don’t come, or you build it and it’s not big enough. I think our risks are the latter.”
Healthy outlook for iconic company
Manuka Health is a Te Awamutu success story, with its prominent building on the outskirts of the town reflecting its growth journey.
The company has hives throughout the North Island and does its extraction in Carterton and processing in Te Awamutu.
Manuka Health exports its honey products to 45 countries, including Germany, Japan, the US, Australia, China and Southeast Asia, says general manager marketing and R&D Kate Kember.
Operations general manager Ronnie Singh says the Te Awamutu plant is well situated with good access to ports for the company’s export business.
“Every year we invest more technology into that plant to build better capability and also capacity.”
Between 60 and 70 staff are employed at the site, including some who have been there from the start.
“I think we’re really proud of our roots in Te Awamutu and the family that we are building with our employees,” Kember says.
“We’ve got a number of employees that have been with us for the whole journey of Manuka Health, which is over 10 years. It started there and that’s where we see the heart of our business. We’re very proud of the fact that products produced there get sent out around the world.”