Mary Hamilton's dreams are right there outside her kitchen window.

To the east are the ranges of the Coromandel Peninsula, a favourite tramping spot.

To the west, out of sight, but always there, are the waters of the Firth of Thames. It's where Hamilton and her husband Eric can cast off their runabout, Tieke, in minutes two hours either side of high tide.

And dead straight ahead, peeking over the homes and yards of her neighbours, is a large brick building.

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It's the Thames Community Recreation Centre, a $4.5 million project that's been a labour of love for the 51-year-old volunteer chairwoman of the Thames Sport and Education Trust, which worked with the Thames-Coromandel District Council and Thames High School to make the dream of the soon-to-be-opened community asset a reality.

When she's not helping make projects that will potentially remain in use until her three teens are nudging retirement, Hamilton is at work for Wilderness Motorhomes, the 80-employee, two city-based business she owns with her brother.

For Hamilton, dreams aren't some distant hope. They're right here.

"I'm living the dream now, because I've got a job I love, a lovely home in a beautiful place, I've got these hills I look out on, I can go fishing when I want to, I've got my sister here and other family not too far away, we can enjoy the theatre [in Auckland] and we travel quite a bit."

That's not to say life in Thames, a town of around 7000 residents at the gateway to the golden sands and sparkling waters of the Coromandel Peninsula, is akin to a Disney movie with Hamilton standing guard at the new Kopu Bridge as its Pollyanna-style mascot.

There is poverty, Hamilton says.

"One difference from when I lived here as a kid ... is that there are a lot more social issues that are noticeable in small town New Zealand. There are homeless people in Thames, there are families that have significant issues with poverty and homelessness."

Social agencies are great, but struggle to get enough support. Among other things, she also wants the Government to crack down on landlords failing to provide warm, dry rentals.

Knuckling down for the benefit of others is in the blood - Hamilton's late father, Keith Managh, was a successful businessman who was heavily involved in his community.

Mary Hamilton briefly considered moving to the South Island, but Thames has captured her heart. Photo / Nick Reed
Mary Hamilton briefly considered moving to the South Island, but Thames has captured her heart. Photo / Nick Reed

Hamilton grew up in Thames before leaving for university and work, returning in 2000 to work at Thames Timber, founded by her grandfather in the 1950s.

Thames is a town born of timber and gold and, later, putting together locomotives and cars, but the few big employers have made way for a lot more small employers, particularly those catering for the tourists who flock to the peninsula.

Job opportunities are a huge part of whether a town is vibrant or not - they attract the families, especially important in a place such as Thames with a high age demographic.

More workers also means more support for projects such as the new recreation centre or the skate park, Hamilton says.

Both received funding from big business, but a lot of the dollars came from families or small mum and dad businesses, she says.

"We struggle with this kind of love/hate relationship with business in many ways, but my father was a great believer in business that has a social conscience. Business can be for good."

For some of the ordinary families who helped make the dream a reality, it was the first time they had a local project they could support.

"I guess that's one of the things I've really tried to do is to work and provide channels so people could put their money back into this town."

Having spent some time overseas, she's pretty happy with how the Government supports business in New Zealand, but one black hole - in Thames at least - is the lack of decent internet.

The situation is so bad Hamilton uses a Wilderness motorhomes portable unit in her home, she says.

"Evidently fibre is coming, but [for now] it's a major constraint, because if you think about where the opportunities are for small business, it's technology based."

Thames High School principal Dave Sim worries about the financial burden of student loans on his children and pupils. Photo / Nick Reed
Thames High School principal Dave Sim worries about the financial burden of student loans on his children and pupils. Photo / Nick Reed

A block away, Thames High School principal Dave Sim has seen the changes affecting employment in the town since he arrived to lead the school 12 years ago, and he's seen the squeeze on rental accommodation from people priced out of Auckland moving to the provinces.

But in his school office the married father of five turns his mind to those just starting their adult lives.

Aged 58, he received his tertiary education for free. But the same good fortune has not befallen his children, or the 550 pupils under his charge every school day.

"They finish their training and they have a pretty serious mortgage they've got to overcome and I think that's been a [Government policy] change that's ... affected a whole generation of young New Zealanders."

Iceni Smith-Taane knows all about student loans. Her mate is studying medicine and expects to graduate $100,000 in the red.

No thanks, Smith-Taane says.

"The whole thing about going to Uni, one of the biggest draw backs is I really didn't want a student loan."

The 18-year-old stayed in Thames, where she has lived with her single mum since age three, and works at The Green Grocer.

It's a good place to live, even if she doesn't agree with some people's ideas for the
town - such as using council funds to help create a steampunk hub.

"I understand they're trying to get it so it's another attraction for Thames, but I think it's almost a waste of money ... couldn't that money go to something way more useful?"

Iceni Smith-Taane is getting some life experience before pursuing her childhood dream of being a mortician. Photo / Nick Reed
Iceni Smith-Taane is getting some life experience before pursuing her childhood dream of being a mortician. Photo / Nick Reed

It's a bit like planning your future, there's thought required.

Smith-Taane decided aged 13 she wanted to be a mortician. She's been told to get more years life experience before building a path to her dream.

That's cool. Her time to help people - those who are gone, and those who remain - will come, she says.

"Someone brings you into this world and I kind of think that someone should be there to take you out. And it would be a privilege to kind of be able to help and support the people that are going through such a hard time in their lives."

That might mean leaving Thames, and Smith-Taane's ok with that.

There was a time when Hamilton thought about leaving too. Her widowed mum had just died and Hamilton and her husband seriously considered their future.

Thames made the decision for them.

"We couldn't think of a better place we wanted to live ... my hope for Thames is that we can continue to make a sustaining and thriving place, and that we look after everybody in the town."