Bed maker and exporter The Comfort Group has started the countdown to a hearing of its plan to build a $1.4 billion manufacturing and housing community in north Waikato, with new economic projections claiming big benefits for the area.
Australasia's biggest bed and sleeping products maker, an Auckland family-owned company which owns the Sleepyhead, Sleepmaker and Dunlop Foams brands, wants a zoning change in the proposed Waikato District Plan to be able to start building this year on 176 hectares of marginal rural land it's bought at Ohinewai, 5km north of Huntly.
The hearing for a change to industrial, business and residential zoning is set down for early June.
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The hearing has been brought forward five months and a decision, expected quickly after, by nearly a full year, in response to the company's plea for urgency because it has run out of room in Auckland.
"We need to get moving," director and co-owner Craig Turner told the Herald.
"Our business is growing quite substantially in China, we have leases being terminated and our production space is full."
Two efforts to expand in Auckland had been stymied by objections and limited space, Turner said.
Comfort Group plans a mixed-used community with up to 1100 new homes and a cutting edge manufacturing centre which would boost its manufacturing space from 30,000sq m to 100,000sq m over 10 years. The site would be the group's new headquarters.
It currently employs 500 people at three sites in Otahuhu, Avondale and Glen Innes.
If it gets the green light mid-year, earthworks would start almost immediately with the initial stage, a foam manufacturing centre, expected to be operational by mid 2022, Turner said.
The housing plan is an integral part of the development because Comfort Group wants to help its staff into their own homes, impossible now for many with the cost of Auckland housing, he said.
Key numbers from an economic impact report say capital investment in the district over the decade would likely result in direct economic benefits of $1.3b and create about 410 jobs a year.
For the economy of the immediate local area, Huntly and Ohinewai, the development would likely inject $100m over 10 years and create 42 more jobs a year.
For ongoing operational impacts, Sleepyhead's operations and the housing development alone were estimated to have a $193m-a-year positive economic effect on the wider region, supporting 1265 jobs. Within the immediate area, ongoing benefits were put at a further $35m in retail spend and an additional 1088 jobs, including Sleepyhead staff.
A bulk factory outlet associated with the manufacturing business is planned on 9.5ha of the site, selling beds, mattresses, bedding, drapes, soft furnishings and furniture. Homeware stores, neighbourhood shops and a service centre are also planned.
In its submission to the Waikato District Council, the company said it intends to set up a scheme to help staff and their families into housing ownership as part of their employment.
The new community beside the Waikato River, to be called the Sleepyhead Estate, would enable people to "live, eat, and work in one area", said Turner, saving staff commuting costs and providing more time with their families.
The application said the housing area of 23ha would be a mix of about 900 medium and higher-density homes. Some would be reserved for staff and others offered to the market.
The housing area would be separated from the industrial operation by a recreational/open space buffer of more than 100m wide. The site adjoins Lake Rotokawau and a DoC reserve and would provide walkway and cycle access to Lake Waikare and Te Kauwhata.
Asked how much "affordable" housing at the new community would be and how the company planned to support staff into them, Turner said it was early days.
"We've been working with the banks ... to find ways of doing different financing packages - shared equity is one thing we're looking at. This [aspect] is not well developed but there are lots and lots of opportunities."
He wasn't sure yet of the cost of the "affordable" houses because discussions needed to be had with the council and the Government.
Turner rejected the suggestion the company was depending on the new housing offer to help swing a decision its way in June.
"We won't have to firm up housing [by then] because it's not something we are promoting in our application. [What] we are promoting is that it is bringing industry and income into an area that is [economically] really suffering."
Turner said the company would have spent at least $2.5m on the proposal by hearing time. It had 22 specialist consultancies on the proposal.
An attraction of the district was the labour force available to support the company's growth prospects, he said.
It was working with Waikato-Tainui as part of the planning. Skills training of some Ohinewai and Huntly locals had already started with a minivan picking up prospective employees and taking them to Auckland each morning.
Turner said while "anything could come out of the woodwork" in the hearing process, council support had been strong and nobody had suggested the plan isn't sensible.
"We have people saying we have to take into consideration things like emissions and water, and things like that may be stumbling blocks. The site is totally unserviced. But no one has said it doesn't make sense."
"We believe in this, it's good for the community and good for the country."
Comfort Group is in talks with KiwiRail and the state highway authority, Turner said.
The company is keen to utilise the site's close proximity to rail to reduce the number of trucks used in its import and export operations, through the building of a rail siding to serve the development.
"It's horrendously expensive for a siding, we have to talk to the Government. Without the Government we can't do it. We need assistance to get trucks off the road. We expect to have to contribute of course but we haven't gone down that track yet."
The company also needs to hear from NZTA over the road authority's requirements for the development.