Council on war footing

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As campaigns rev up to encourage New Zealanders to spend local under COVID-19, South Waikato District Council has been quick to come up with its own high-profile twist.

Posters and billboards featuring the beaming face of Mayor Jenny Shattock and carrying the words “Local business needs you: spend local”, in an echo of the iconic war posters, will be seen around the district once level two is reached.

Economic development manager Paul Bowden says the posters were printed before lockdown and the council has already agreed with NZTA where they will be put up.

“There was a lot of work done before the lockdown but we chose not to put them up once we got into level three and four because we realised most businesses couldn’t benefit.”

Posters will be displayed at businesses and roadside signs will be erected in Tīrau, Putāruru, Arapuni and Tokoroa.

Bowden says the initiative is aligned to the Mighty Local campaign that is being rolled out across the region by Hamilton & Waikato Tourism and Te Waka.

Heeding its own message to support local business, the council has been busy on multiple fronts as it grapples with the impacts of the pandemic, including working with the South Waikato Investment Fund Trust (SWIFT) to add COVID-19 information to the trust’s website.

“We set this up very quickly once we got into the lockdown, because we realised one of the issues we had from business was that they were finding it difficult to get up to date information.”

They are hosting webinars on the page and have given people the opportunity to ask questions, making the information bespoke for locals.

“We were lucky, we contacted a number of local professional advisors, accountants, lawyers, people like that, who offered to provide pro bono support, so people could just post a question, then we would get an answer for them and post it online for the community to share the answer.”

SWIFT is an economic development trust set up by council, but operating independently, with a ring-fenced fund of about $28 million. It works with local business and its offerings include providing capital, training support development and support for businesses wanting to relocate to the area.

Its COVID-19 page has had more than 700 unique users during the lockdown, and Bowden says people from outside the district have also been tapping into it.

He has seen resilience and creativity as owners look at options such as contactless delivery to help promote their business, and make use of the wage subsidy to keep staff connected.

“We have seen an increase in unemployment – not as marked as it was after the GFC, but we’re only in early days, and I think it will be interesting to see what happens after that 12 week initial [wage subsidy]period.”

He pays tribute to the Ministry of Social Development “who have done an amazing job under incredible circumstances to provide councils with data relating to benefits which have been significantly impacted by Covid-19”.

Bowden has, however, discovered district-based unemployment statistics exist, but are not being shared in a timely way with councils.

“It’s about the political will to provide that data. And that’s a sensitive issue for some reason, but we are trying to navigate that space on behalf of all councils. We are working with Te Waka on that.

“Elected members are voted in to serve their communities, they need to understand what their community’s needs are at this moment in time. Unemployment figures are one of those useful metrics.”

But Bowden says most businesses are still fairly positive and believe they’ll be able to get through the outbreak. “I mean, we will lose some businesses there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “I think the main concerns are really going to be in hospitality, in the food and beverage side.”

Forestry, a major player in the district’s economy, can resume at level three, and the council and SWIFT are lending support, in particular with trying to provide extra vehicles to transport crews as social distancing requirements reduce the number each minibus can carry.

Like other councils, South Waikato has come up with a list of infrastructure projects for potential government support. It has submitted five projects with a value of over $70m. They include three waters infrastructure to support growth in Putāruru, where up to 600 new residential sections and a large business zone are planned; wastewater treatment plants upgrades and wetlands planting throughout the district; and the Maraetai Road Intermodal Business Park in Tokoroa.

There may be a silver lining to the crisis. “More of a community has been established within the business community as a result of this people have been supporting each other, and have been connecting in a way they hadn’t been doing before. So I think there’s some positive coming out of this.”

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