A Rotorua business has revealed its multimillion-dollar plans for Whakarewarewa Forest. Cira Olivier finds out what exactly is proposed and whether the Redwoods could become home to New Zealand's Statue of Liberty.
A gondola, iconic monument and adventure activities are among the things which could be built in Whakarewarewa Forest if one Rotorua business' plans go well.
MDA Experiences will start running a shuttle service in the forest on December 1 but director Tak Mutu has bigger dreams than just shuttles.
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In fact, he has a $16 million to $20 million dream.
A gondola estimated to cost between $9m and $15m is the foundation of the dream, which also includes a Māori-themed statue which will draw tourists, a modern shuttle service and new trails.
The ideas were included in a business proposal put forward during a competitive tender between MDA and Southstar Shuttles run by CNI Iwi Holdings Ltd last year.
CNI manages land and forests, including Whakarewarewa, collectively owned by eight central North Island iwi. Profits are distributed back to iwi.
MDA takes over running shuttles in the forest on December 1.
Mutu aims to provide up to 20 jobs within the first year of operating and more than 50 through the gondola service alone.
The scale of the venture would cross over industries and local businesses, Mutu said.
"We want to partner with people."
Final decisions on the plans will be made by CNI, mana whenua Ngāti Whakaue and Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao.
It was important to develop on the land in a way the CNI agreed with, Mutu said.
"We want to develop an asset the landowners can call their own."
He said while the forest was one of the most popular mountain bike parks in the world, other parks "are catching up".
"We have to keep pushing the envelope."
Mutu's plans will be in collaboration with Rotorua Lakes Council's Forest Hub 2 development which was allocated $7m from the Provincial Growth Fund and $7.5m in the council's 2018-2028 Long-term Plan.
A gondola, estimated to cost between $9m and $15m, is the foundation of the proposal. From there, further developments in the forest can be made.
MDA is working with Leitner Ropeways to develop a blueprint for the gondola and concepts produced so far are the same as Mt Ruapehū's Sky Waka.
"Top facilities" would surround the gondola base and peak and Mutu said he could picture a bar, cafe, bike shops, and even a brewery at the bottom.
Mutu said they needed to have compelling reasons for people to use the lift and developments at the top would drive that.
An "iconic" monument
Mutu also hoped to put an "iconic" Māori-themed statue at the top of the mountain, with views of the central plateau, White Island and the lakes, with hopes it would attract tourists.
"Something that everyone who comes to New Zealand has to get a photo with . . . That talks about us as a people," he said.
"When I think about significant monuments, I think about the Statue of Liberty. You know where you are when you see the Statue of Liberty."
Local iwi and Te Puia would be involved in creating something "contemporary by design but Māori by nature".
Modern shuttles: Whaka Waka
MDA aims to have all shuttle vehicles modernised within a year. There would be four buses by the time MDA took over from Southstar Shuttles and there are goals to have all vehicles post-2000.
These will be called the "Whaka Waka", a name hoped to be transferred to the gondola.
Environmental standards are high on the agenda and newer models would produce lower emissions.
The original proposal did not include buses but adjustments were made to comply with the competitive tender.
More than mountain biking
Twelve additional trails would be developed, two of which would be walking tracks.
"It's not just about mountain bikers, it's servicing other people," Mutu said.
A walking trail across the ridgeline, as well as a forest loop, would cater to different capabilities and fitness levels.
MDA hoped to develop "ecological experiences" at the top, which would use nature as the base for adventure and adrenaline activities.
MDA began working with the Department of Conservation before the proposal was made and would continue to do so throughout the process.
Mutu also wanted to see a percentage of revenue go to charities, organisations and groups in the district and company ownership partially passed onto employees.
Mutu believed everyone should own an asset.
"I'd like to see iwi own the biggest chunk of this business . . . The people who own the land should be seeing the benefits of it."
So where to from here?
Consents needed to be worked through and plans needed to be approved but Mutu said he "would definitely like to see this development happen, sooner rather than later".
MDA has been working with consultants to develop the detailed designs since July last year and will continue to do so.
"We've lined all the ducks in a row so all we need to do is pay some money."
Rotorua Lakes Council's role in developing the forest is the forest hub, which group manager strategy Jean-Paul Gaston said would provide additional access to the forest.
This would include the construction of toilets and showers and sealed, gravel and grass carparks for 400 vehicles by April next year.
Gaston said commercial investment was expected to follow.