One of Rotorua's "iconic" destinations will soon have a new place to welcome visitors, designed by a local business.
Three concept designs have been shortlisted for the Long Mile Rd Visitor Centre and the three businesses will now refine their concepts further before one is awarded the contract.
Rotorua Lakes Council sought expressions of interest for the design and build of the centre earlier this year.
The criteria for the job included an upgrade or replacement of the current Visitor Centre that was innovative, attracted visitors, reflected the central mana whenua (iwi/hapū) narrative and the natural environment and had an integrated, flexible layout that catered for future changes in use.
The project group received 11 expressions of interest and three concepts were chosen by an evaluation panel made up of representatives from Rotorua Lakes Council and CNI Iwi Holdings Limited.
Southern Draught Architectural Solutions director and principal architectural designer Dylan Thomson said he was "thrilled" to be shortlisted.
"There was some stiff competition from prominent architectural firms. It was always going to be a tough challenge but we rose to the occasion. We were rapt."
Covid-19 resulted in a loss of business for the firm but also allowed Thomson to spend hours researching, collaborating and drawing the concept design.
He said winning the project would guarantee at least a year's work and positively affect the construction industry.
"When things are picking up for us, it's a good sign for the construction industry in general."
Bishop Architecture principal architectural designer Mark Bishop was honoured to be shortlisted for the project after spending several weeks on the design.
"I love that area, I have a bit of connection with it."
Bishop poured his energy into the design during lockdown and while winning the contract was the end goal, the experience in itself would be a learning curve and a confidence boost, he said.
"It could lead to growth, even off the back of just being shortlisted."
Lockwood Group managing director Andrew La Grouw said winning the contract would mean more than 50 staff would be able to secure their jobs and construction would flow down to forest crew jobs and timber mills.
"There will also be significant economic benefits woven through the fabric of our community through the employment of all the local trades and professionals and purchasing of materials from local suppliers, all needed to deliver this project."
La Grouw said the submission would use locally designed, grown and manufactured goods including pine from the Kaingaroa Forest, harvested by local forestry crews, processed in local mills and manufactured in the Lockwood factory in Fairy Springs.
"In this respect, the new Visitor Centre will have been touched by many local hands who will be proud to show off their work to their whānau."
The concept was designed by Lloyd Akroyd, who La Grouw said was inspired by his whakapapa to create a deeply personal expression of Whakaaro Māori, Te Ao Māori and Kaitiakitanga.
The visitor centre is part of a wider forest development project which has received more than $7 million from the Provincial Growth Fund, including $90,000 last month.
The current Visitor Centre was built in 1970 and about 640,000 visitors walked through its doors last year.
Rotorua deputy mayor Dave Donaldson said it was pleasing the upgrade contract would go to a local business.
"It's especially important in the current situation we find ourselves in, in relation to the pandemic. Council's procurement policy gives an extra weighting to local businesses, so we look to use those wherever possible.
"[The shortlisted concepts] are very exciting, very interesting. From what limited input I had, it represents what I'd love to see sitting down there, it's not my role to pick a winner but they all look pretty awesome."
Donaldson said the current Visitor Centre was no longer fit for purpose and its upgrade would be a welcome boost to local tourism.
"The Whakarewarewa Forest has become an iconic destination for Rotorua ... We are certainly putting ourselves out there to be the visitor destination of choice."
Auckland University of Technology School of Architecture senior lecturer Andrew Burgess, who works with advocacy group Evolve Rotorua, said the Visitor Centre upgrade was an opportunity for the council to show it was serious about Wood First - a council initiative which recognises the economic, environmental, cultural and social significance of wood within the community.
"I would expect all of the designs to meet Rotorua's Wood First policy. Admittedly, it is concept stage at the moment and they look like they're aligning with it.
"I'd expect the council to support those designers. These are local designers and a lot of people will be visiting this centre so it's a really good opportunity for the council to show where they stand on this Wood First policy, climate change and sustainability."