Work is just days away from starting on a multimillion-dollar revamp of town centres in Kaitaia, Awanui and Ahipara.
The upgrade is part of Te Hiku Open Spaces Revitalisation Project, which is funded by a $7 million grant from the Government's Provincial Growth Fund for ''shovel-ready'' projects.
Kaitaia has been hard hit in recent years by the shift of big retailers to the northern end of town, leaving two large buildings derelict and their surroundings magnets for antisocial behaviour.
The town upgrade is aimed at beautifying those areas and make them people-friendly, while also turning three unsightly alleyways into showpieces for Kaitaia's history and culture.
Project working group chairwoman Andrea Panther, who also chairs the Kaitaia Business Association, said $1.2m of the $7m total had been set aside for ''cultural gateways'' to improve the entrances to the three towns. That project was still in its early stages.
Kororā Park in Ahipara, Awanui Park, and Allen Bell Park in Kaitaia would also get significant upgrades.
Some preparatory work was carried out last week but the project would start in earnest on March 29.
Kaitaia's ''streetscaping'' would focus around the old Pak'nSave and Warehouse buildings and three alleyways.
The old Pak'nSave in particular, given its prominent location on the town's main street, was ''a big bone of contention for locals''.
The plan was to turn part of the carpark into a town square with seats, shade areas, pergolas, plants, a play area for children and a low stage for performers.
Seventeen car parks would be lost but the rest would be retained.
The group could do nothing about the derelict building — it was still owned by Pak'nSave's parent company — but artwork would camouflage the eyesore until it was demolished or renovated.
Meanwhile, the outside of the old Warehouse building would be decorated and the carpark redesigned to make it people-friendly.
Seating, shade sails and plants would make it an inviting place for workers to have their lunch, something that was lacking in Kaitaia, Panther said.
The carpark would also be tidied up using ''shovel-ready'' funding. The parking area was privately owned so wasn't maintained by the council.
The Saturday market would remain and be enhanced by better surroundings.
Council-owned company Far North Holdings had bought the old Warehouse building. Its plans were still being developed.
Panther said many of Kaitaia's alleyways were ''disgusting'' and attracted negative behaviour.
The plan was to turn them into showcases of Kaitaia history and culture.
The alley between Jujnovich Holdings and He Korowai Trust, already dubbed Dalmatian Alley or Dally Alley, would be decorated with historic gum digging photos, a carved entrance and a welcome in te reo Māori, Croatian and English.
The alley between Goods 2 U and Far North Pharmacy, which leads to the old Warehouse, would showcase the 20 beaches within 20 minutes drive of the town, while the alley between Kiwibank and Central Dairy would celebrate the area's abundance of kai — the origin of Kaitaia's name.
Panther said more alleys needed attention but the project would start with those three.
The working group's plans for Allen Bell Park would complement improvements already planned by the Far North District and Northland Regional councils. They included a pump track for young mountain bike riders to hone their skills, like those recently built at Waitangi and at Paihia School.
Panther said the Kaitaia Business Association decided in 2019 to embark on a beautification project, with the association and Te Hiku Community Board splitting the costs of the plan and consultation. Groups in Ahipara and Awanui had been working on similar proposals.
Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and what appeared at first to be a setback turned into an opportunity when Regional Development Minister at the time, Shane Jones, called for ''shovel-ready'' projects to soak up unemployment and boost regional economies.
Councillor Felicity Foy realised the three projects combined — plus a few extra footpaths and park improvements — would be ideal for funding.
The Te Hiku Open Spaces Revitalisation Project was originally part of a package of 20 projects in the Kaitaia area with a total price tag of $27m.
When the Government granted $7m the wishlist had to be pruned back significantly.
''We were stoked to get the money, but also disappointed that we had to reel our plans back in,'' Panther said.
One of the proposals not going ahead is a shared cycleway/walking path linking Kaitaia with Ahipara, Kōhanga/Shipwreck Bay, Awanui and Waipapakauri.
Panther said the working group was set up to plan the open spaces project rather than have the stretched Far North District Council, the funding recipient, contract it out to an Auckland consulting company.
Panther said ''jobs for locals'' was part of the kaupapa for the shovel-ready projects but with many of the council's preferred suppliers in Whangārei or Auckland, the working group pushed hard to ensure local firms got the work.
With council help, local firms had been upskilling in health and safety requirements, allowing them to tender for council contracts.
''We're also making sure the locals are heard and listened to,'' Panther said.
Other working group members are John Paitai (representing Te Rarawa and Ahipara residents), Suzie Clark (Ngāi Takoto and Awanui Ratepayers chairwoman), Adele Gardner (community board chairwoman), Delwyn Shepherd (landscape architect), Felicity Foy (district councillor) and Kevin Hoskin (project manager).