In an unprecedented small-town move, Wairoa leaders marched on Parliament earlier this month to tell politicians that Wellington had forgotten about them and that they can solve their own problems from now on, thanks. So can the struggling town turn itself around from within? Laura Wiltshire reports.
"If you can launch a rocket from Wairoa, you can do anything."
Those are the words of Wairoa District Council CEO Steven May. They portray a sense of optimism local leaders have about the northern Hawke's Bay town, which has a population of 4300, despite some of the negative statistics associated with the town.
Physically, Wairoa is isolated, situated halfway between Napier and Gisborne.
It takes close to two hours to get to from its southern neighbour, Napier, depending on how fast you take the many corners, and how many wild goats you have to brake for.
You wind up past Lake Tutira, over the Mohaka River, and through farmland and forest.
The town is bustling, carparks sparse. We luckily get one right outside Oslers Bakery, famous for pies and possibly one of the only places outside the South Island to service a classic cheese roll. Once in the door, the queue grows quickly behind us.
The buzz around here is not what one might expect if you judge Wairoa only on statistics.
A recent study found 12.3 per cent of adults in Wairoa are on the jobseeker benefit, compared to 4.3 per cent nationally.
Teen pregnancy rates are higher than the rest of Hawke's Bay, as are rates of chronic disease, and life expectancy is shorter.
Eighty-seven per cent of the population lives in government-measured deprivation, making it one of the most deprived areas of New Zealand.
Nationally, it is 40 per cent.
But, as the CEO of Wairoa District Council Steven May says, there's a will to turn things around.
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said they wanted to face up to the issues.
Attracting teachers, police and health staff was difficult. Little said when he joined council it was a "can't-do council".
"Councils have such a big influence on the economic growth in a community."
Access to MPs had been another issue in the past, and the roads in and out of Wairoa needed upgrading.
The town also had an unfortunate reputation when it comes to gangs.
Little said while there was definitely a gang presence in Wairoa, there had not been a major gang fight for at least seven or eight years.
He said they were working with organisations such as police to ensure people in town felt safe and not intimidated.
He said for a long time, small rural communities had seemed like an afterthought to the Government.
Community leaders recently decided to get everyone around the table and tackle the issues facing the town through the formation of a community partnership group.
Councillor Hine Flood said the town was often underrated, underestimated and pre-judged.
She said the work being done through the community partnership group, ie the recent visit to the Beehive to meet ministers face to face and present Kakapa Te Wairoa, was a solution-based, united community approach to lift residents' wellbeing.
She gave examples such as Māori run X-fit group, TūFit Wairoa.
She said visiting TūFit on Anzac day she found it full of Māori who were taking their health back into their own hands.
Another example was a digital collective, an innovative hub that has been established which connects Wairoa with the rest of the world and the world to Wairoa.
She said she was excited to be a part of a progressive Wairoa in every sense of the word.
May said people who used to live in Wairoa were starting to return, and out-of-towners from New Zealand's main centres were moving in, wanting to live mortgage free. In November 2018, the average house price in Wairoa was just under $200,000.
The Hawke's Bay average is currently $465,000, and nationally it is $585,000.
The influx brings with it business and vibrancy.
"There's a bit of a buzz going through town at the moment."
Little said, while they had to work within the law, they tried to make the resource consent process as easy as possible for anyone wanting to build, to encourage business.
Two people who have moved from the big smoke are Dianne Downey and Paul Hyslop .
The couple, from Auckland and Wellington respectively, moved to Wairoa and have opened The Limery. They bought the Kopu Rd property in 2009.
It started simply as a dream to have a bit of land near the ocean.
"Looking around town there is citrus growing everywhere, so we went okay, let's give this a go," Downey said.
The Limery was the only citrus company in New Zealand where citrus was grown, processed and packaged on site, Hyslop said.
"We're the only site in New Zealand that's got an integrated facility."
The couple have six fulltime employees and multiple casual staff, and have plans to grow over time.
The staff includes a student from Wairoa College who works part-time, and a woman who before working at The Limery was on the benefit.
The company has applied for funding from the Provincial Growth Fund.
"One of the big things we had to do with this whole process of going to the PGF was put up a social story, so we had to demonstrate clearly doing socially," Hyslop said.
"The employment side of things will build over time, and it is almost a requirement of when you go through the PGF is what are you doing for locals, how are you helping local communities from a responsible employer perspective."
Having The Limery in Wairoa had also allowed other people in the area to grow their citrus business, as they could process their fruit at The Limery.
"Everything that we grow or bring in is all taken care off, even the skins at the end of it all go across the road for stock food for the deer."
"There is no waste on site."
The company supplies limes to supermarkets nationwide, and their products go to a variety of places such as bars and restaurants.
Downey said there needed to be more businesses in Wairoa.
"They need something different from the meatworks."
"A number of retail shops that had closed down have been purchased by out of towners and they are setting up businesses in those shops," Hyslop said.
"'The most recent one was a local old butcher shop that's been purchased by a couple and she's a high-end glass maker from Nelson."
He said the right people needed to come to the town, who had the vision, ability and networking skills.
Downey said there was a lot of affordable land, which made returns easier than places like Auckland.
Businesses like The Limery are helping turn the economic tide in Wairoa.
Deputy Mayor Denise Eaglesome-Karekare said there had been a long period when businesses had been closing.
"People were probably feeling like, god, when is this going to end, is it going to end when there are no shops open?"
"There's a bit of excitement out there at the moment, where the community sees that council are driving a whole lot of initiatives that are going to grow this community, bring back its vibrancy.
"People love Wairoa, they love the lifestyle, we just need to grow more business and make more opportunities for people, and especially our young people."
Little says he remembers hearing the old council saying they were "managing the downhill spiral".
"That should never have been the case."
He said for a long time being on the council was something you did when you retired, but now there was a younger council.
There's a bit of excitement out there at the moment, where the community sees that council are driving a whole lot of initiatives that are going to grow this community, bring back its vibrancy.
"We've got a good council that wants to move forward.
"We don't always get on, but at the end of the day we've all got the same goal, and that's to see this community thrive, economically, socially, environmentally, culturally."
Iwi in the district have also been moving through a treaty settlement process, managed by Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa Trust.
Tātau Tātau o Te Wairoa Trust chairperson Leon Symes said they were moving into the post-settlement phase, and one of the most important aspects was rebuilding relationships with crown entities.
He said a bottom-up approach was needed to improve outcomes for whānau in Wairoa, as opposed to the traditional top-down approach from government.
Nigel How, from Wairoa Taiwhenua, said he tended to think of a historic quote from a doctor in the 1860s who described Wairoa as a utopia.
"As soon as government intervention came into Wairoa, after the confiscation in 1872, that all changed."
"Ever since then, all Crown policies and government departments and Crown policies have not benefited Wairoa in any form whatsoever - apart from creating a reliance on social welfare."
He said he wanted to see Wairoa return to a self-sufficient, vibrant, thriving community which it was in the 1860s.