A volunteer group which has transformed a Northland town through hard work, creativity and a policy of “do it first, ask permission later” has won the supreme prize in this year’s Far North Community Awards. Peter de Graaf examines the rise and rise of Focus Paihia.

It all started with a purple-haired Australian.

Okay, it didn't really start with the eccentric Ocker. It started a few years earlier, when the people of Paihia decided they wanted to live in a better, prettier, more pedestrian-friendly town.

They knew they lived in a beautiful place - they only had to ask the ship-loads of tourists that invade every summer - but they also knew their town was tatty, with grim public toilets and a waterfront occupied by parked cars and asphalt. It was a long way from living up to its potential.

Then a few townsfolk hatched a plan. They surveyed, questioned and schemed until they had a pretty good idea of what their fellow Paihians wanted.

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They drew up plans and made demands, but found there was little the council could or would do in belt-tightened times.

That's where the Australian, an urban design guru named David Engwicht, came in.
He showed them you don't need councils, ratepayer cash or consents. His was a message of reclaiming public spaces, of acting first and asking permission later.

Focus Paihia was already a community trust by then; from it sprang the Paihia Phantom Placemakers. With little notice and less permission they would descend on public spaces like an army of guerilla decorators, beautifying footpaths, the Village Green and Maiki Hill.

Emboldened by success they took sledgehammers to the town's biggest embarrassment, the Marsden Rd public toilets, described by a well-travelled graffiti artist as the worst in New Zealand, and turned it into a functional work of art.

But those projects pale next to the creation of a waterfront park on what used to be an ugly parking lot.

For three months last winter volunteers pulled up asphalt, built boardwalks, installed coloured lights, fountains, sculptures and a giant board game, sowed grass and created a large illuminated map. There's even a free library in an old phone booth and a public piano which is wheeled out each day for anyone to play.

Because Horotutu/Our Place, as the park is known, is on land owned variously by the NZ Transport Agency, the Far North District Council and Far North Holdings, the group had to give up its usual technique of asking permission afterwards. Unlike previous projects it also ran into opposition, due mainly to the loss of parking spaces. Now Horotutu is finished its opponents' silence is deafening.

That transformation of Paihia's waterfront from car park into people-friendly space won Focus Paihia the supreme award in Monday's Far North Community Awards in Kaitaia. Run jointly by TrustPower and the Far North District Council, the annual awards recognise outstanding contributions by the region's volunteer organisations. Sixty-three groups were nominated this year.

Focus Paihia treasurer Sarah Greener said winning the top prize was "a big surprise" and the response from Paihia residents overwhelming. Though still nine months away, the group was already excited about the chance to represent the Far North in the national finals in Wellington next year.

Mrs Greener said Focus Paihia started with a small group of locals - among them Tania McInnes, Grant Harnish and Heinz Marti - who were "sick of the way Paihia looked and felt".

"It was a bit shabby, it wasn't going forward. It had huge potential but it wasn't being realised."

Around 2010 they formed a trust and drafted a master plan based on feedback from Paihians about what they wanted from their town.

The plan looked amazing but would have cost millions the council didn't have. A few years earlier, when the economic downturn hit, Far North Holdings had put its own multi-million-dollar plan to revamp Paihia's waterfront on ice.

The turning point came when a council staffer offered the group a spare ticket to hear David Engwicht speak about his "placemaking" philosophy of citizens reclaiming public spaces as their own. It was an epiphany.

"That was the big shift. We went from demanding the council do something, to the community doing it and asking the council to help," Mrs Greener said.

"David talks about not just being consumers, but going back to being citizens, members of your community. You have a responsibility for making it a better place, to make it feel like home."

The group found their shift in thinking prompted a similar change in the council. The once depressing experience of dealing with officialdom turned into a positive, can-do relationship. Focus Paihia decided what needed fixing and how; the council chipped in with materials or looked the other way if the rules were bent.

Focus Paihia gets a good chunk of its income, about a third, from an op shop on Selwyn Rd. The rest comes from town maintenance contracts and a targeted rate the council collects on the group's behalf.

Not everything Focus Paihia touches turns to gold. A state-of-the-art beach grooming machine bought with a $200,000 Pub Charities grant spent its first few months locked in a shed when it turned out a regional council consent was needed to operate it. The beach cleaner was also opposed by conservationists worried about its effect on shore birds.

Ironically, it was an environmental disaster further south that proved the machine's worth. When the Rena ran aground in the Bay of Plenty the group leased it to Tauranga to clear oil from the city's beaches. It was also put to use after last month's storm left Paihia's beaches littered with debris.

These days Paihia is something of a poster child for civic revival. Councils and community groups from around the country regularly come knocking - recent visitors have come from Motueka, Palmerston North and Raglan - to look and learn. Kawakawa residents have adopted a similar philosophy to upgrade their indoor pool and save it from closure; a group called Love Opua is busily beautifying its corner of the Bay of Islands.

Mrs Greener said Focus Paihia had done more than make the town look better. The projects had also brought people together.

About 150 people had worked on the Bay Belle project, installing seating and creating mosaics next to the wharf; more than 250 had helped build Horotutu, including tradesmen who had given up their time to help and townsfolk who delivered food to the volunteers each day.

"I've made friends I'd never have met in my day-to-day life. It's pulled people together from all walks of life," Mrs Greener said.

"I walk through the park now and I see families eating fish and chips, kids playing on the wave seats. It's about the ability to make a positive change. It's given us a real sense of pride."

* Upcoming projects include further improvements to the Village Green, extending Horotutu's lighting and street furnishings down Marsden Rd, and - the biggest challenge of all - finding a solution to the traffic that funnels through the centre of town.
And the winners are...

Sixty-three volunteer groups entered this year's Trustpower Far North Community Awards, with the winners announced at Kaitaia's Te Ahu Centre on Monday night.

> Supreme winner: Focus Paihia
> Heritage and Environment: Puketi Forest Trust
Runner-up: Kaikohe and Districts Historical and Mechanical Trust (Pioneer Village)
Commendation: Herekino Landcare Group
> Health and Wellbeing: Whare Timatanga Hou Ora (Kaitaia Women's Refuge)
Runner-up: Mid North Women's Aid and Refuge
Commendation: Waimamaku Wild West Festival
> Arts and Culture: Chris Wilkie and the Northland College mural team
Joint runners-up: Far North Avocado Festival Trust, Hokianga Tui Tuia Trust
> Sports and Leisure: Kerikeri Netball Centre
Runner-up: Special Olympics Bay of Islands
Commendation: Hokianga Sailing Trust
> Education and Child/Youth Development: Bay of Islands Riding for the Disabled
Runner-up: Far North Holiday Camps
> Youth Spirit: Cody Makaua
Runner-up: Melissa Chapman