When a Hundertwasser Art Centre was first mooted for Whangārei, businessman Barry Trass got hold of Michael Hill, the jeweller. Trass was chair of the Prosper Northland Trust, the outfit behind the project, and he needed to raise a lot of money. He thought Hill would be a good touch - local boy made good, famously philanthropic, famously an arts lover.

Sorry, no, said Hill.

Trass was shocked. Hill told him he got asked for money every day and he just didn't believe the gallery would work.

The project crawled along. Fredensreich Hundertwasser was a world-renowned artist from Austria, living in Northland. Whangārei was run by people who didn't like spending money and besides, the artist was rude. His famous toilets in nearby Kawakawa were seen as a calculated snub to the small-minded provincials of the bigger town.

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But one person's small-mindedness is another's moral decency. "I'll tell you why I never supported the project," an influential Northlander told the Weekend Herald. "I knew Hundertwasser. He propositioned my wife. And then he propositioned my daughters."

The story everyone tells is of the time the then-mayor, Stan Semenoff, visited Hundertwasser at home. The artist was naked when he opened the door and a couple of also-naked companions were "cavorting" in the room behind him. German girls, the story goes, complete with straw-haired pigtails.

Hundertwasser, no question, was an insult to propriety.

Read more: Why its worth spending millions on arts in the provinces

But then, one day in a cafe in Whangārei, he sketched the design for an arts centre on the back of a serviette – much as British architect Basil Spence had done for the Beehive in Wellington – and proposed a prominent site for the centre, and gave it to the trust.

Trass knew how valuable that serviette was. It could be the making of the city. But few others saw it that way.

Ten years later, Trass got a call. "It's Michael Hill Jeweller here," said the voice. "I'm in Austria. I'm at the Hundertwasser Museum in Vienna and I can't believe what I'm seeing. Hundreds of excited people all over the place. They love it. You were right. I get it."

When Hill got home he wrote the trust a very large cheque.

The public mood shifted. Last year a referendum supported the project and, by a narrow margin, so did the Whangārei District Council. The money was secured, the piles are now in the ground and the yellow construction crane dominates the downtown skyline. Well, it's the only crane.

Fredensreich Hundertwasser was a world-renowned, but divisive, artist. Photo / Hundertwasser Archive, Vienna
Fredensreich Hundertwasser was a world-renowned, but divisive, artist. Photo / Hundertwasser Archive, Vienna

Despite that, the chair of the Whangārei Art Museum (WAM) Trust Board, Grant Faber, says he is in despair. The council, he says, is standing by, just watching.

"It's a $29 million project. And we're required to do everything to get it built and to create a business there that's fully functioning from day one. But we're voluntary trustees. We can't do it all."

His board will meet with the mayor, Sheryl Mai, and the council's chief executive, Rob Forlong, on January 29, to lay out their problems and ask for help.

If they don't get it? "It's highly probable I will step down." Faber says he can't speak for the other trustees but some of them could resign too.

Mai says she's "absolutely" a supporter. "If the chair of the trust board is concerned, we need to listen to that, we need to act."

Her council won't meet until next month and she doesn't want to pre-empt any decision they might make. But she acknowledges it's a "massive project" and "fundamentally we want it to succeed – we do know the benefits".

The pōhutukawa were in bloom before Christmas in Whangārei, crimson blushes all over the hills crowding the town, and down at the Town Basin the river was thick with moored yachts. Kids ran about on the long terraced plaza, showed off their bike tricks, climbed whatever they could climb. It was hot, humid hot, the cafes and gift shops were doing a heaving trade and the bars and restaurants kept going well into the night.

Back in the centre of town the cars clogged every road, all through the day, but there were empty shops. When night fell, people scurried away.

There's Whangārei and there's Whangārei. One of them is building a brilliant new cultural centre on the best spot in town, right at the place where the main street connects to the Town Basin. There are expectations of a hotel and conference centre to follow, and cruise ship visits, maybe a ferry service, and all the economic bustle that will attend on it all.

This is the Whangārei that wants to be a place worth living in, worth visiting and worth staying in. A Whangārei that has local entrepreneurs, tangata whenua, the arts community, the mayor and some councillors on its side. Also, as per that referendum, the public.

The other Whangārei says yeah nah, talk to the hand, not going help, how dare you dream. That, according to Faber, Trass and others, is the rest of the council.

Whangārei, eh. A toilet stop on the way to the Bay of Islands.

There's a river of gold flowing past that city, heading up state highway 1 for the playgrounds of the winterless north. But the economy is depressed and unemployment is high, especially among young people, especially among Māori. Politicians, local and in Wellington, have for decades watched over the decay and pretended there was nothing they could do.

Not all of them, but most of them. You could call it criminal neglect. I don't know why we don't.

Or, Whangārei. The most beautiful town in New Zealand. No other place has such picturesque, thriving life along its water's edge. That Town Basin is a gem. No other place is cradled so gracefully in the green hills. Nowhere else are there such starkly astonishing landforms as the headlands and islands of the Whangārei Heads.

It's close to Auckland and it has a deepwater port. Close to two coasts lined with wonders and with glorious forests between. Home to a determined group of people who want it to be better – environmentally, culturally, economically, socially.

And the instrument of their ambition is art.

The principal tenant of the Hundertwasser Art Centre will be the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, which will present exhibitions of contemporary Māori fine art, drawing on the collections of major public galleries and private owners. The first of its kind in the world. It's a big thing.

Around 50 of Hundertwasser's brilliantly coloured, meticulously free-form compositions will also be on show - paintings, sculptures, building designs and more. There will be a restaurant, cinema, gift shop and forested roof. "It's not a garden," says WAM trustee Jenny Hill. "These will be rare native trees and they are going to grow as a forest."

Much of the $29m budget has been met by grant organisations like Foundation North and some big philanthropists. The Government is putting in $14m, with bipartisan support, and the Northland Regional Council a further $1.5m. Public fundraising has raised $3m.

The contribution agonised over by the Whangarei District Council, which the referendum approved, was only $2.97m. And that approval came with a stipulation: Not a dollar more.

That's Grant Faber's problem. They're within budget on construction - the capital expenditure. "But we're volunteers and we've got project management to do, all the health and safety, not to mention the extensive liaison with Vienna. And there's procurement. I've been trying to draw up the RFP [request for proposal] for the cafe and I'm not an expert in this."

The WAM Trust is a council-controlled organisation, and Faber wants council officials to take on more of this backroom work. But he says the council keeps telling him that would be an extra cost so it can't be done.

Michael Hill was inspired by the Hundertwasser Museum in Vienna. Photo / Hundertwasser Archive, Vienna
Michael Hill was inspired by the Hundertwasser Museum in Vienna. Photo / Hundertwasser Archive, Vienna

"They offered me the services of a council procurement official, but it would be in her own time. She'd be volunteering her help," he says.

Council chief executive Forlong provided the Weekend Herald with a list of measures undertaken by council, but they do almost nothing to address Faber's request for professional support.

Meanwhile, the big picture. Is the council ready to make the most of the Hundertwasser Art Centre?

Trass is no longer directly involved with the project. He's one of the developers who wants to build a new hotel and he was instrumental in persuading cruise ships to make two trial visits to Whangārei, once the centre opens. Northport is keen and Trass wants to set up a ferry service from the port to town.

He says it's been hard to get any support from council. "I've said to them, you've got a few thousand people heading this way and you need to be thinking about what they'll need. Like more public toilets. They weren't even going to do that."

Faber tells a similar story. He says there's nothing in the council's 10-year budget to suggest it understands the potential of the project.

Mai says that's wrong. "This is where I have to disagree with Grant vehemently," she says. "We're pulling out all the stops."

She cites some of the items on Forlong's list: landscaping around the centre, plans for coach dropoffs and more public parking and, yes, extra public toilets. "We may have to redesign the roads nearby too."

But responding to the practical challenges of having more visitors is not the same as creating a strategy to make the most of the opportunities. How will the art centre, along with the Wairau Māori Art Gallery and the Hundertwasser exhibits it contains, be used to spark a tourism boom and a social and cultural renaissance in the city?

"We want this to be one of the most important visitor attractions in the region," Mai says. "Up there with Tane Mahuta, Paihia, Waitangi and Cape Reinga."

How? "We have a number of strategies. We're working closely with Northland, Inc." That's the economic development arm of the Northland Regional Council.

But it was a private developer who organised the cruise ship visits; it's volunteers who are running the project build. There is, as yet, no discernible council plan to use the centre to divert that river of gold off SH1 and into town.

It's hard to know why that is, although WAM trustee Jenny Hill has a theory. "Basically," she says, "they don't have the guts. It's a lack of balls, that's what it is."

If you don't do anything, you can't be blamed for anything? "That's it."

Is it odd to think that art can lead the way? It's not a new idea. The British Museum, the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have always been central to what locals and visitors alike love about those cities. Integral to their identities, their popularity and therefore to the success of their economies. The same is true for towns and cities everywhere, no matter their size.

The Sydney Opera House once faced all the same obstacles as the Hundertwasser Art Centre. An ugly and expensive irrelevance, a waste of the best site in the city, all of that. But look at it now. It's unique and the city is unthinkable without it. People – all sorts of people – flock to it. It is loved and celebrated.

That's the prospect for the Hundertwasser in Whangarei. And that, say the people building it, is currently at risk.