In December last year, an appointment was made to the Eastern Bay of Plenty's regional economic development agency, Toi-EDA, that gave the organisation a voice on both a national and global platform.

The voice came with the appointment of Michael Barnett.

Mr Barnett is chief executive of the Auckland Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a director of both the Auckland Chamber and New Zealand Chambers of Commerce.

In Whakatane on Tuesday to meet with Whakatane District Council staff, Toi-EDA members and the Eastern Bay Chamber of Commerce chief executive Ged Casey, Mr Barnett admitted his appointment may have been seen by some as a little strange considering he does not hail from or live in the area.


"But bringing someone from outside the area, I believe, is a smart move," Mr Barnett said.

"I come in impartial, I can be objective, and the agency can benefit from my experience with economic development."

When asked about the economic future of the Eastern Bay, Mr Barnett couldn't stress quickly or strongly enough that we must think of ourselves as part of the Bay of Plenty region, and not the three small towns of Whakatane, Opotiki and Kawerau.

"New Zealand is based on regions and Bay of Plenty must act as a region and look at its resources, make decisions collaboratively about future employment and attracting investment and talent.

"Smaller towns cannot do it on their own."

He said it was better to get three or four big wins for a region as opposed to lots of little wins for a town.

"The Eastern Bay region must leverage off neighbouring economies for growth, and it's looking at clever ways to do that. There's no point in Whakatane trying to better the Port of Tauranga, but how about promoting Whakatane's port as the gateway to the country's best fishing spots.

"People also need to think a little outside the square when coming up with ideas to use regional resources for economic development."


Proof of his own outside-the-square thinking was an short video showcasing New Zealand and screened in The Cloud during the Rugby World Cup 2011.

"Rather than go with all the things New Zealand is already known for, I wanted people to watch the video and be amazed.

"The eight-minute film showed examples of tourism, aviation, marine, food and beverage, electronics, forestry and geothermal, to name a few, but in all cases it left many international guests and New Zealanders saying 'Wow, I didn't know we did that here'."

Mr Barnett sees opportunities for the Bay of Plenty region in tourism, forestry, geothermal fields and aquaculture.

"Once economic development becomes the story, then having people who understand what needs to happen next is crucial. People like Ged, in his role with the Chamber, can then work with businesses to improve capability, training, networking and working with local government to build platforms from which businesses can operate.

"The challenge for regions is this: they have to work out who they are and work out what opportunities are available. "Investigate strengths and weaknesses, make choices based on these, build brands and tell the stories."