Frank Greenall: Take closer look, Shamubeel

By Frank Greenall -
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Frank Greenall
Frank Greenall

CONTROVERSIAL "zombie town" economist Shamubeel Eaqub is venturing into the lion's den again, coming to town soon as guest speaker for the unveiling of a "refreshed" Whanganui brand. Nothing like a spot of refreshment.

Sham the Man, you may recall, is the chappie who whistled through a while back and branded Whanganui a potential "zombie town". We needed to reinvent, he said. But we didn't -- and don't -- need Mr Eaqub to tell us that. Reinvention -- in individuals and towns -- is always a natural work in progress as situations change.

Supposedly, we are one of these stagnating provincial towns, with declining job opportunities, youth taking off for the big cities, and so forth.

But if you look at the 2013 census stats, Whanganui's age-group demographics aren't too different from the country as a whole -- just a few percentage points here and there in the working age population. Similarly, unemployment is only two or three points up on the national average. Mr Eaqub relegated the town to the twilight zone on the basis of a few percentage points.

Perhaps he was fooled by some empty shops down the Avenue. But the empty shops are a sign of growth -- prosperity, even. To his credit Mr Eaqub draws a distinction between the two terms, especially commendable given that use of the term "growth" in an economic context is often oxymoronic. In other words, it's often used in a sense whereby the economy can apparently "grow" even as living standards -- true prosperity -- head south for the majority.

But back to the shops. They're empty because our retail sector is expanding. Many of the original drapery, manchester and hardware stores, the shoe and appliance stores, and such like, have simply agglomerated into the several so-called Big Box stores off main street. Even some still retaining Avenue frontage, like the supermarkets, are no longer little superette affairs.

To deconstruct all these various big store departments and try and fit them once more into the Avenue would be impossible -- you'd need to construct another Avenue. Growth. Meanwhile, we have that extra space just waiting for new entrepreneurs.

Granted, manufacturing is down, but then we have a perverse present government that seems determined to send as much small manufacturing offshore as possible.

Commendably, too, Mr Eaqub recognises we need other metrics besides Gross Domestic Product to recognise actual quality of life factors. GDP, you remember, is the system that purportedly measures "growth" by the amount of goods and service going around. The one that says it's good for the economy to have a Rena grounding on a reef as often as possible because it stimulates clean-up industries and the sale of rubber gloves.

But Mr Eaqub's main contention is that somehow the bigger centres are leaving their rural cousins behind. He even wrote a book about the general topic called Growing Apart. Yet his innate bias seems to be that it's the Aucklands of the world that are the go-ahead growth exemplars, while ignoring the very metrics that are a more accurate measure of quality-of-life factors -- the ones that measure true prosperity. You know, simple things like putting an affordable roof over the head, being safe in your own neighbourhood, potable water and clean air.

For many Aucklanders, their city has become dystopia on a stick. Even those with windfall house gains can only realise them by quitting the city.

Could it be towns like Whanganui are the way of the future? Sustainability is a word much bandied around, but maybe it's only centres of a manageable size that will be able to strike the right balance.

But it's good to see Shamubeel spending a bit more time in the city. Perhaps he's starting to like the place. In fact, if he spends much more time here he might get arrested for loitering with intent.

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