Many people will question the connection between Colin Mitten's public role as chairman of Northland Inc and his new private venture.

Mitten is leaving Northland Inc to lead a proposed $125 million digital data centre to be built at Marsden Point.

The news of a $125 million local development is welcome but it should be noted that is the estimated cost of an eventual eight-unit data centre. Aotea Clear Cloud is only planning two units initially - and fundraising for the venture is in its infancy.

Mitten is an Auckland-based businessman, financier and entrepreneur whose experience on trusts and boards includes being one-time Northport chairman. He was chosen as inaugural chairman and acting chief executive of the economic development unit set up by Northland Regional Council, funded through interest earnings off NRC's investments.


Mitten has made no bones about his enthusiasm for digital industry and its possibilities for Northland. During his tenure, Northland Inc signed a memorandum of understanding with Hawaiki Cable which, despite its exotic name, is an Auckland company. That treaty promised the landfall in Northland of a new pan-Pacific high fibre optic cable, hooking up Northland's economy with - virtually - the world.

Apparently riches would pour through that cable into Northland almost as fast as would data, and similar local industries and associated jobs would develop off the back of it.

The cable has not been started and some pundits say there's only a 50:50 chance it will hit the seabed inside the next two years. It is not the first promised, but not yet in sight, trans-Pacific super-fibre link the announcement of which was accompanied by news of internet providers lining up to buy capacity on the cable.

Even Mitten and co say their new data centre is not reliant on that cable coming in.

A $125 million development sounds good and will generate support as well as a feel-good factor. Add it to last week's news that Northland is ahead of other regions in business confidence and this week's news that this is New Zealand's fifth most important tourism region, and we really want to believe in either the trickle-down or the exponential growth effect. Sooner rather than later, we hope, it will mean wage earners have more in their pockets, the region's appalling poverty-related statistics will improve, more jobs and money will be generated locally.

That is what a publicly-funded regional economic development unit needs to focus on; that, and ensuring its leading lights are above reproach.

Naturally, as an entrepreneur and head of an economic unit, Mitten saw business opportunities - windows. Northland Inc's chief executive David Wilson says there is no conflict of interest in the connection between Mitten's public job, which included pushing for increased data capacity in Northland, and his new private job.

But Mitten was paid well from Northland's public purse to investigate money-making enterprises. We look forward to seeing who will reap the rewards, how things trickle down, the exponential benefits.