When it comes to stimulating and developing the Eastern Bay of Plenty economy, there is only one piece of action in town, the Provincial Growth Fund.

Introduced by the Labour-led government, it provides investment in economic development across a range of projects that could be the game-changer for regions like ours. It leaves the previous governments regional efforts in the dust.  And just to make sure opportunities are not lost, the local Labour MP, Kiritapu-Allan, has been cracking the whip across the Bay on both stakeholders and political colleagues alike.

Some stakeholders have well and truly geared up. Projects including the Ōpōtiki Harbour and Aquaculture Development, Kiwifruit and Horticulture and the development of Kawerau Putauaki Industrial sector are transformative. These are large scale industries and will offer significant job growth in these areas.

Whakatane, however, is at risk of being left behind. Its main project is tourism and the development of the wharf. It is small and underwhelming—and is perhaps the result of a narrow focus as well as a lack of genuine engagement with iwi and community stakeholders. Moreover, the other projects are at the investment-ready stage, the Whakatane wharf is still at the feasibility-stage.

He Poutama Rangatahi funding has been given to providers like Whakatōhea and Te Puna Ora o Mataatua to work at the other end of the spectrum with rangatahi to help them become work-ready. There is a real risk in Whakatane that there will not be any new opportunities once they graduate.  

Strategic leadership around local economic growth in Whakatane has been missing in action.  

TOI Economic Development Agency (TOI EDA) was set up by BOP Regional, Whakatane, Kawerau, Ōpotiki Councils and Ngāti Awa (on behalf of Mataatua Iwi) in 2006 and is responsible for economic development. But its mandate in Whakatane has been variable, as Whakatane Council disengaged between 2013-16.  

Enter, Stephanie O’Sullivan, new CEO for Whakatane Council. She is the former CEO of Ngāti Ranginui and former MBIE Provincial Growth Fund project manager for the Bay of Plenty. Highly skilled and can engage in both Māori and Pākehā worlds.

Her first job is to confirm the mandate and funding for TOI EDA. Confirm a council-Iwi partnership model—from governance to operations. Invest in the sub-regional plan of Whakatane and led a conversation around new ideas and options that can supplement the Tourism/Wharf township venture.

Second, consider refreshing the Board of TOI EDA. We don’t need to import talent. We have an abundance of local innovators and skilled professionals that can mix it up with the best of them.

Third, engage change-makers. Geoff Hamilton at Ngāti Awa Group Holding Ltd, Briton Williams and Tristan Vine at the Lightning Hub and Karl Gradon, new Chair of EBOP Commerce Commission, have all brought new and welcomed energy to the Whakatane economic sector.

Whakatane deserves strong and localised economic industries. Nothing beats embedding future aspirations in rangatahi than letting them see it with their own eyes.

Published in the Whakatane Beacon on 11 October 2018.

Dr Chris Tooley

Chris Tooley, Ngāti Kahungunu, CEO of Te Puna Ora o Mataatua.

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