Maori business leaders and a leading economist put a different slant on the "zombie town" story at the Federation of Maori Authorities conference in Wanganui at the weekend.

Economist Shamubeel Eaqub has warned that stagnating towns in regional New Zealand risk being deserted and becoming "zombie towns". He was invited to Wanganui to see the city featured in a 13-minute television segment on September 21, parts of which annoyed Wanganui people.

Among them was Julie Herewini, who organised the Yeah Hard Whanganui Zombie March on Saturday. She intended it to celebrate the good things about the area.

On the morning of the march the "zombie town" label was on the mind of speakers at the conference as well.


They said much Maori business had to do with land. That land was in the regions and Maori were committed to keeping it and to staying there.

Attendees heard the Maori economy was worth an estimated annual $36 billion. The combination of that and increasing numbers of Treaty settlements bringing new economic power gave it some "new-found mainstream popularity," Parininihi ki Waitotara (PKW) Incorporation CEO Dion Tuuta said.

"The mainstream New Zealand business community is looking at Maori with more interest than ever before."

Organisations were lining up to partner with Maori agribusiness - the Ministry for Primary Industries, Silver Fern Farms, DairyNZ, Lincoln University, Landcorp.

Speaker Anne-Marie Broughton, the general manager of South Taranaki iwi Nga Rauru, said the Sunday programme failed to highlight positive things about the region, but there was some truth in it.

Population and jobs were decreasing, people were ageing and public and private services were reducing or disappearing altogether.

"It's a fact for Nga Rauru that heaps of our people want to come home, but they can't because there's no jobs."

Change was needed, she said.

"We will not become a zombie town, but it would be foolish of us to ignore what he said."

BERL chief economist Dr Ganesh Nana has been working in the Maori economy for years. He said 15 out of New Zealand's 16 regions were losing population and getting browner - with the Maori population mainly young and the European population ageing.

"New Zealand is going to look different. There will be more Maori and more people like me, which might be a little bit scary."

But he didn't call those provincial towns zombie towns.

"They're going to be your heartland."

The country's economic model is flawed, he said, because the resources and wealth are actually in the regions.

"Auckland and Wellington don't drive the economy. The model thinks we can generate wealth in those cities."

He urged Maori to use their land to create opportunities for themselves - generate incomes, create jobs and put food on the table.

"You can't sell it off, so why worry about (what it's worth). The important thing is what is the asset base being used for? Not the outputs - the outcomes. That's the challenge I put in front of you."

There were about 300 at the Wanganui War Memorial Hall for the conference from Friday to Sunday.

Speakers included former Maori Party MPs Tariana Turia and Pita Sharples, Morikau Incorporation CEO Hari Benevides and Atihau Whanganui Incorporation CEO Mavis Mullins, economist Dr Ganesh Nana and many others.