Three people eyeing up the Central Hawke's Bay mayoralty agree the council needs change.

About 340 people packed out the CHB Municipal Theatre to hear the candidates talk about why they are standing and what they can offer at the Hawke's Bay Today mayoral debate.

A key theme in the run-up to this year's elections in CHB has been the need for change, and each candidate talked about what could be done differently and how they would help bring that about.

The first speaker, Sally Butler, said the current council had achieved much in the last term while maintaining a stable balance sheet, and moderate rate rises, but there were things that could be done better.

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"There does need to be a culture change in the council to put people first, and to build a closer, more trusting relationship between residents and the council."

A supporter of the Ruataniwha dam, she said it had the potential to solve the farming sector's challenges with droughts and that CHB would need to prepare itself to leverage the benefits should it go ahead.

All candidates were asked how they would promote economic growth if the dam did not go ahead and Mrs Butler said the key would be to promote the positive aspects of living in Central Hawke's Bay to attract more people to live in the district.

"Central Hawke's Bay has a bright future, and we will have to make sure we market the district well - we want people to come and live here and bring jobs, with the council assisting by keeping rates down and providing the infrastructure for businesses to operate well."

Alex Walker called on the district to "be brave and give CHB a chance to break out of the mould".

She said council processes needed to be people-focused and flexible, with better communication and transparency, and a shared vision built through consultation with the community.

Careful and long-term planning would be needed to foster economic development into the future, she said, with creative thinking on how to finance that and the associated infrastructure.

Also a supporter of the dam, she said if it didn't go ahead there would still need to be a focus on investing in innovation in farming and other businesses.

"We need more high-value businesses here and to work with creative people. Farmers are having to change their models now and we have to support that change and provide a council that listens to people and has an inclusive and comprehensive approach."

She said she was a strong, able and articulate candidate who could lead the council and the community in a positive way, with a new perspective and strategies to cope with the modern world.

Gerard Pain said he was standing to offer the community another alternative, one without the dam that would destroy the Makaroro River, resulting in increased water pollution due to farming intensification.

He said he wanted to appeal to others out there who saw environmental health as necessary for economic health.

"The dam is a big cost and risk to ratepayers and farmers, and on-farm water storage is another alternative.

"We need to recognise that this is a dry region - we need to be drought resilient rather than water dependent, and helping farmers to realise dry land, low-input farming will be better for the district in the long run."

He said the council should get past the hype and focus on its core infrastructure and community roles, rather than propping up the dam. If he were mayor, he said he would not only promote his vision, but also listen to the community and the councillors.