It's been seven weeks since the Hawke's Bay Regional Council published a formal consultation document outlining a range of options for how to fund the growth of Napier Port.
Five weeks of formal consultation has now closed and we received close to 3500 submissions - a new record for our council on any issue.
Informed by submissions, hearings to be held in December, six public meetings, countless conversations and two years of work on this subject, the regional council will be well informed to make decisions on this important issue for our region.
We've received some detailed and thoughtful submissions and appreciate the time and energy that people have put in to these. This newspaper has published multiple perspectives on this subject which we appreciate. The public engagement has been tremendous.
I want to acknowledge the thoughtful and constructive engagement of port staff, including the Rail and Maritime Transport Union. I have enjoyed my engagement with them and their advocacy has been influential.
I also want to acknowledge Robin Gwynn's contribution in HB Today earlier this week.
He raises some good points, which caused some robust discussion within my own family.
He's right that the challenges we face on how to invest in our port are not new. Napier Port has been steadily growing for some time and the regional council had previously started to consider these issues. However, sustained growth across our economy and at our port has been spectacular.
We have a booming economy that is now placing significant pressure on our hardworking port.
While we have different perspectives on how best to fund the growth of our port, the regional councillors are unanimous that doing nothing is no longer an option. Our port is at a tipping point and neither the council nor our community can afford to kick this issue into the future for others to deal with. We need to find a solution that strikes the right balance: for our port, its staff, our industries, ratepayers and our region.
I disagree with Robin Gwynn's suggestion that the port should not pay a dividend. The port needs to generate a fair and reasonable return for ratepayers. The dividend the council receives has balanced the need for the port to contribute to its owners while providing funds for continued re-investment.
The port has already been investing in the step-change that is required to cope with current and future demand - this is why the port currently holds a sensible level of debt.
We need to take significant decisions now to set our port up to support our region for the future. Failure to act now will see our port become less competitive, more and more ships will be turned away, jobs will be lost and our economy will be stifled.
The regional council is seeking to limit the impact on ratepayers, particularly those on fixed or low incomes. We want to maintain majority ownership and control of a key community asset. Above all, we must provide access to the funds to enable our port to grow.
There has been a pleasing acknowledgement in submissions around the need for our port to grow. Fifty-seven per cent of submissions support the option of floating a minority stake in the port on the local stock exchange.
This preserves majority community ownership and control, sees the regional council continue to retain a strong commercial interest in the port, provides the funds the port needs for investment and does not burden ratepayers.
Just over 28 per cent of submitters supported retaining 100 per cent ownership, with council borrowing money to give to the port and ratepayers covering the cost of an additional $103 million over the next decade. A number of those submitters noted that they support 100 per cent ownership but did not want to pay for it.
About 14 per cent of submitters supported none of the options or favoured a minority sale to an investment partner or a long-term lease of the port to a private operator.
We've always said there's pros and cons to every solution and nobody will ever agree on everything. That's healthy.
The fantastic level of engagement from across Hawke's Bay on this issue now sets the regional council up to make significant decisions on how to fund our port for the benefit of our region.
* Rex Graham is chairman of Hawke's Bay Regional Council