Whanganui celebrated the completion of its urban ultrafast broadband rollout last month and is only the second city in New Zealand to be able to offer all businesses and residents access to the game-changing technology.
The district council was able to convince government to give it priority in the national fibre rollout because it’s serious about providing the conditions to attract and grow entrepreneurs and established businesses looking for the right balance of lifestyle, technology, workforce and affordability.
Whanganui’s vision aims for a leading edge connected community powered by creative smarts. It has already made its mark internationally as one of the world’s Smart21 communities – the only place in New Zealand to achieve the honour from the Intelligent Community Forum.
It’s all about building a 21st century economy from a strong base with roots in the district’s past as a major sheep and wool producer, processor and exporter dating back to the early years of European settlement, alongside the long established Maori community focused on the Whanganui River.
Significant numbers of businesses that were established last century are expanding and transitioning under second and third-generation family members who are harnessing smart manufacturing and distribution technologies to introduce new products and services to growing export markets.
The district’s transport infrastructure and easy access to the main centres is attracting interest from businesses who can see the benefits of access to a modern rail logistics hub with extensive warehousing and container park facilities in the industrial area, which can get export containers to Wellington’s CentrePort overnight. Like many Whanganui stories the hub is the result of companies combining their talents to achieve mutual aims and in turn provide capacity for further producers.
Mayor Annette Main says the district council has been building strong teams, under the Whanganui & Partners banner, to promote economic development. They’re ready to assist businesses wanting to relocate or expand in a central, easily accessible location that is free of big city style pressures on land and housing availability and affordability, and long commutes. The business friendly council is encouraging development of the district’s plentiful supply of affordable bare land and is in the process of abolishing development contributions in favour of a range of targeted tools to reflect the true cost of providing network infrastructure for growth.
From milk powder and meat to large boats, safety helmets and complex component prototyping and manufacturing, Whanganui has large and growing companies that serve customers around New Zealand and export around the world.
Mayor Main, owner of an accommodation retreat on the river that attracts international, national and local visitors, and founder of the Saturday riverfront markets, says recent increases in visitor numbers to the district attest to the attractions of a benign climate and rich heritage with a picturesque CBD boasting many historic buildings. Visitors flock to annual Artist Open Studios and glass festival weekends and enjoy river cruises on the country’s only coal-powered paddle boat.
Heritage buildings and converted warehouses and woolstores are home to a growing community of artists, many with significant reputations internationally, that have emerged over the last two decades mainly due to specialist degree programmes offered by UCOL tertiary institution. Entrepreneurs are capitalising on the fibre network and affordable rents to launch startup ventures and provide specialist services to larger manufacturers and other businesses operating on the urban fringes.
A growing number of agricultural and horticultural innovators are harnessing new breeding and growing technologies to produce high value niche products ranging from goat cheese and manuka honey to supermarket-ready exports of premium lamb.
The district is home to one of the largest Maori incorporation owned farming operations which is setting new standards for innovative, sustainable and profitable farming practices. A range of new businesses and joint ventures are expected to emerge as the iwi investment potential resulting from the Whanganui River Treaty Settlement further boosts economic development in the district.
Wider economic opportunities and challenges are being explored as part of a government sponsored regional growth study encompassing local authorities across the central North Island, which will provide a potential blueprint for further growth. An immediate goal is to double agri-business exports to $3.8 billion within 10 years by harnessing the combined expertise and knowledge available within the region and through central government.
Tourism is also expected to be part of the regional growth initiative and Mayor Main says the same qualities that have put the district on the visitor map are increasingly catching the eye of businesses and skilled workers looking for the lifestyle and technology advantages unique to Whanganui.