Amalgamation of the four Southland councils into one local body covering the entire region is unwelcome but probably inevitable, says Invercargill mayor, Tim Shadbolt.
“Things are running fairly smoothly between the four current councils without any major issues or problems. However I think change will happen whether we like it or not.”
Shadbolt says the potential for amalgamation is a “hot topic” in the Southern region following the recent local body elections, when he was re-elected for a record seventh term as mayor.
“It was very heartening to be re-elected considering I was in Malaysia for half of the election on a student recruitment drive for the Southland Institute of Technology.”
He says the reinvigoration of the Invercargill CBD is another key issue for the new council, with a multi-million dollar plan to revamp the area put on hold until questions around the future of many of the city’s heritage buildings can be answered.
“There is quite a lot of anxiety over the future of our heritage buildings after what happened in Christchurch. We need to do a bit more work in terms of assessing high priority heritage buildings and seeing what the outcome is. Hopefully we can speed up this process so it doesn’t hold up the inner city upgrade.”
Shadbolt says the economic performance of the Southland region is slowly improving, with business confidence returning and a small amount of commercial development happening in the inner city.
Invercargill City Council has also been involved in some of its own successful land developments.
Around five years ago it sold all the land in its 600 ha Awarua Industrial Park on SH1 between Invercargill and Bluff, to food processors Talleys who set up a boutique freezing works and mini dairy factory.
The Council has since developed a further 600 ha site adjacent to Awarua, where there is currently a “lot of interest”.
Shadbolt says dairy development remains strong in Southland but is nowhere near the pace of the early 1990s.
“When I arrived in Invercargill in 1993 we had 40,000 cows in the region, now we’ve got 500,000. The dairy boom hit us like a tsunami.”
He says it has been challenging to strike a balance between economic progress and maintaining a clean, green environment throughout the boom years.
The Our Way Southland Quality of Life Survey conducted in July and August this year showed that water quality and the impact of dairying still represent the most significant concerns for Southland residents.
The survey also revealed that 90 percent of the 1585 people surveyed rated their overall quality of life as good or excellent in the region, with the economy, a vibrant CBD and community spirit considered most important.
A population increase of 2.7 percent in both Invercargill city and the wider Southland region has been “one of the great victories”, for the region, says Shadbolt.
“Back in the early 1990s Statistics New Zealand presented us with some rather pessimistic statistics and told us to prepare for a population decrease to 30,000 by 2020. We said no way, and rushed into a series of projects, including the introduction of zero fees education; the development of an indoor velodrome, Olympic pool, and new stadium; as well as the renovation of the Town Hall to an international standard. The film industry and a host of events has also brought the town to life, and contributed to the rise in population which is hugely significant for us.”
An influx of foreign students from the likes of China, India, Vietnam and Malaysia is also revitalising the city, he says.
“We can now describe Invercargill as a truly multi-cultural city.”
Shadbolt believes there is “huge potential” to grow the aquaculture and tourism industries in the region.
“We have a 2500 km coastline and only a very small aquaculture industry, although there is a lot of development starting to come on stream now.”
He says Southland has always been the “little brother” to Queenstown in terms of tourism, but new initiatives are drawing more visitors.
“We’ve been working hard on developing the Tuatapere Hump Ridge track, and other tramping and cycling tracks in the region. Stewart Island also has huge tourism potential. With more effort put into infrastructure such as sewage, water and electricity on the island we believe it is a potential tourist market just waiting to happen.”