Editorial: Events hold the key to keeping our visitors

By Annemarie Quill

Rotorua is the new Rarotonga. So I told friends who were jetting off to tropical islands these school holidays, whereas our family destination was our volcanic neighbour over the hill.

The prospect of trekking around the hot mud felt tough in comparison with a hot beach. But I have to say, having returned from my first Rotoroa vacation sampling its tourist highlights, we are impressed.

The sheer range of activities on offer was outstanding, from the luge, to wine tasting, spas and night markets. We visited The Daily Post home show in the huge Energy Events centre. The service in hotels and restaurants was impeccable. The tourist operators were professional, efficient and to international standards. It felt like we could have been tourists in any big world city.

Compare this to Tauranga. Despite the fact I love living here, we cannot live off the Mount surf forever. Visitors to the Bay must struggle to discover our town's delights because we certainly don't make it easy for them.

No wonder international visitors, including nearly 250,000 cruise ship passengers predicted to land here this season, are tempted to hop on the first bus out of here.

This is shameful when we have bodies such as Tourism Bay of Plenty and our two territorial councils paid by ratepayers and businesses to promote the region.

When expert on cities Peter Kageyama visited Tauranga recently, he said events brought people into the city centre. This seems obvious - but not to some of our city councillors, who this week squabbled over the funding of two flagship events; the Garden and Artfest and Tauranga Arts Festival.

Councillor Rick Curach - he of big pay, little hours fame - opposed the grants on the basis the festivals were on a sound financial footing. He was supported by Crs Murray Guy, Catherine Stewart and Bill Grainger.

This is short sighted and shows little understanding of how events operate. Money in the bank is needed to organise, market and develop the festivals to attract maximum visitors.

Tauranga City Council's ad hoc approach to funding major events is concerning. Its latest spat over funding suggests it is time for an overhaul of this outdated bid system.

As Tauranga lawyer Paul Tustin noted in his recent talk at the Chamber of Commerce's Reshaping Local Government event, a city's events are "place-shaping" initiatives that require local authority leadership.

The council needs to invest in the likes of arts festivals to send a message that it values the colour and culture that such events bring to the growth and development of the city and the region.

Tustin went on to outline what the business community expects from local government. It can also apply to what ratepayers want: a vibrant, liveable city with a sense of civic pride, an attractive, exciting and well-designed CBD, beautification projects, commitment to arts, culture, sports facilities and, at an international level, a public commitment to development of the city over time.

Perhaps the future of the city's existing festivals and new events lies in private-sector funding, including philanthropic trusts, as Tustin suggests.

A multi-million-dollar public/private partnership for events is being mooted but will depend on the support of Tauranga's economic development agencies, as well as event organisers and venues such as Baypark.

Such a plan would see the council's annual $200,000 events budget combined with events money from the corporate sector, private individuals, pub charity and other community grants such as TECT.

The involvement of these other parties would result in more strategic decision-making for events, as well as leverage business for local tourism, accommodation, catering, restaurants, bars, retailers and conferences.

It would make Tauranga more attractive to event operators and tourists.

A similar partnership of council, business and trusts has been used to great success by Rotorua District Council in its development of the successful $28 million Events Centre, which I visited.

More public/private partnership funding is on the cards in Rotorua.

I think we can learn from our neighbour. At the least, if the events of this week are anything to go by, the future of important local events should not be left to the whims of a few councillors who seem determined to keep Tauranga forever in Hicksville.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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