The countdown is on to the launch of a promised grunty economic development driver for the Waikato, a region experiencing explosive growth but considered slow to pitch for help to lift its productivity.

An establishment board has been appointed for Waikato's first over-arching economic development agency, and its chairman, Waikato businessman Dallas Fisher, promises it will be seriously resourced to do "serious work".

Due for official launch on July 1, the yet un-titled agency will be based at the Waikato Innovation Park in Hamilton and is tasked with attracting business to the region, especially from Auckland, and with adding-value to its resources.

Squarely in its sights to help achieve this is the Government's new $1 billion a year Provincial Growth Fund.


Fisher said the agency will have 11 fulltime staff and a board of directors whose job will be to identify economic development priority areas, make strong business cases for economic development public funding and investor support, and identify areas within the Waikato region that could benefit from funding support with an added-value focus.

A $150,000 study is already under way in the south Waikato to identify business opportunities. It was commissioned by Waikato Means Business, a 20 year Waikato economic strategy devised by regional business leaders, headed by Fisher.
It will be absorbed into the new agency.

Fisher said a formal business case would be developed from the south Waikato study.
"If that's a runner, we'll look to the Government and investors to come up with the dollars to make it happen. To pick up millions of dollars you need a serious business plan."

Adding value to south Waikato's forestry sector was clearly a starter for consideration, given the political and social focus on New Zealand's housing shortage, Fisher said.

The new agency will be base-funded by Waikato's councils, which between them have committed $400,000 a year to its agenda.

The Waikato Regional Council, which already funds Waikato Means Business, has committed an additional $350,000 a year. Waikato businesses will be asked to find $500,000 a year. Fisher said $150,000 of that had been committed.

It's a safe bet that Hamilton resident Fisher, through his co-ownership of Hamilton-based Montana Catering, New Zealand's largest independent caterer and his emergence as a large-scale events investor and organiser, will be a foundation private investor in the new agency.

About to step down as chairman of the Waikato Chiefs rugby franchise after eight years, Fisher headed Waikato's successful bid to bring the World Rugby Sevens tournament to Hamilton from Wellington in February this year.


Fisher said the Waikato had "a bit of catching up to do" in leveraging its strengths to attract public funding to support economic growth initiatives.
"So we are doing this (agency) properly. Without real resources we can't get the real stuff done."

Governments, he said, were only interested in hearing "one voice" when a region wanted economic development funding. Waikato hadn't developed one voice which meant various initiatives had got minimal support.
Eighteen months ago Waikato Means Business received $85,000 in government funding, Fisher said. This year, as a regional approach movement gathered momentum, it had attracted $400,000.

"My aim is to add a zero to that (a year)," Fisher said.

The agency would also work on the region's skills shortage.

It would not, however, seek to replace community and town economic development work and organisations, and would not be Hamilton-centric, he said.

"We're not going to be eating local people's lunch. Local people know best about local issues. We will be facilitating one voice for the region in speaking to Government, and coming up with agreed business development priorities for the Waikato."

He declined to say how the agency would go about getting that agreement. "We're working on that. We have to put more flesh on it yet."

The establishment board, and subsequent board, would have seven members - five from business and two from local authorities.

Appointed to the establishment board so far are Fisher; former Tourism Waikato executive Kiri Goulter; Kim Hill who is involved in Maori economic development planning; Chris Joblin, chief executive Tainui Group Holdings; Blair Bowcott, Hamilton City Council; Rob Williams, Thames District Council.

A $90,000 seeding grant from the Hamilton City Council is getting the agency on its feet.

Waikato's annual gross domestic product (GDP), according to latest available figures is $18.3 billion, 9 per cent of New Zealand's annual GDP. The region leapfrogged up six places in the latest ASB regional economic performance scoreboard for the quarter to December 2017 to seventh equal place. This was attributed to a strong labour market and a reassuring milk price.

But given its resources and established credentials over other regions - it has 75 per cent of New Zealand's geothermal resources; eight global food processing companies; 99 patent applications per head against the New Zealand average of 74; 25 per cent of New Zealand's land freight movements start, end or travel through the Waikato;the region produces more than 25 per cent of the milk which supplies the country's biggest export industry- the Waikato is, according to economic performance analysis, under-performing.

According to latest Waikato Regional Council figures, Waikato's annual GDP growth was 1.8 per cent, compared to national growth of 2.3 per cent.

Region promoters pitch its proven opportunity areas as high-value manufacturing, central North Island location as an export and import hub, added-value dairy products potential and agri-tech. This year there's a growing promotional focus on Waikato Inc's increasing contribution to the advance of New Zealand's computer and information systems technology sector.

Latest available information from Waikato Regional Council said in 2013 the Waikato contributed 6.1 per cent to New Zealand's ICT sector GDP and accounted for 5 per cent of Waikato's economy.