My home town, Kawerau, started life as a mill town. It was built to service the giant Tasman Mill in the 1950s. "Uncle Tasman", as we all called it, was the heart of the town.
The original Kiwi megaproject – before the Auckland Harbour Bridge, or the Tiwai Smelter, Methanex, or the Marsden Point Refinery - we built Tasman Mill to process our growing pine forests, using renewable geothermal power.
You could get work there with your mates and relatives, and for good pay – my brother, the union rep, helped see to that. My brother and father worked at the mill for a total of more than 70 years. From Uncle Tasman grew other industry, including other mills, engineering, and specialist firms.
As another product of Kawerau, Morgan Godfrey put it: "Its construction built the most multicultural town in New Zealand, and at a time where the country was firmly monocultural. Māori, Samoans, Norwegians, Finns, [English, Americans], Scots, Irish, German, Filipino, Zimbabwean – you name it, they were in Kawerau because of the mill. Uncle Tasman sustained thousands of families for six decades, it nurtured a generation of radical union leaders."
Over the years, automation, Rogernomics, and cutbacks have seen the number of jobs fall, and with that rise in unemployment came problems, but the mills have remained part of Kawerau's identity.
You always knew you were close to home, driving down the straights, when you picked up the distinctive smell of the water vapour rising from Tasman Mill's stacks. It was the smell of home.
Seventy-five years after the Tasman Mill opened, the owners, Norske Skog, have announced they are closing it down. An outsider might think that's the death knell for the town built to serve it but that's far from the truth.
There's a huge amount of wood to be harvested, and more being planted year after year to absorb carbon and fight climate change.
That wood needs to be processed. With the right policies from government, we can make sure that wood gets processed in Aotearoa in towns like Kawerau, and develop new, green industries from it.
In the digital world, we don't need as much paper as we once did, but there are big opportunities to produce biofuels and biomass to replace diesel in our trucks and coal in our industrial plants. These are high-value products that can be used in Aotearoa to reduce greenhouse emissions and reduce our imports of fossil fuels.
I expect to see old Uncle Tasman back in operation in some form before too long under new ownership. It's a great site with clean power, water, the railway, and warehousing.
There's also plenty of investment going into the town from Ngāti Awa and the Provincial Growth Fund – a new rail container terminal and infrastructure for the Putauaki Trust industrial zone have been funded.
The geothermal resource and the trees remain core to the town's economy but the opportunities are growing and becoming more sophisticated.
It could still go the other way. If we keep shipping more and more of our trees offshore as raw logs, rather than doing the work and getting the value out of them here in Aotearoa, then the future of Kawerau and other mill towns, like Tokoroa, isn't great. Leadership from the iwi, from business, and from the Government is vital to prevent that.
But if we keep up the investment, if we put the money into new green technologies, the next 75 years could be even better. As Patrick Te Pou, lifelong Kawerau resident and my nephew, puts it: "Kawerau is a town full of positive people that will remain resilient and prosper."
Let's get the Tasman Mill site back in operation under new ownership. Let's develop those new biofuel and biomass products. Let's get more value from Kawerau's rich natural wealth. Let's get our people into work and out of poverty.
I dedicate this column to my old man, Greenie, who, like so many of our fathers and mothers, gave his entire working life to Uncle Tasman.