Government to spend $20m on Taranaki development

Updated: NBR Radio speaks with New Plymouth Mayor Neil Holdom. 

The government wants more tourists in Taranaki, and is spending $20 million from its provincial growth fund to push the region away from its reliance on non-renewable resources. 

Economic Development Minister Shane Jones today announced the Taranaki Action Plan, a push to diversify the region’s economy. Oil and gas, dairy and energy make up around 40% of Taranaki’s GDP.

(Mr Jones, together with Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage and MP Fletcher Tabuteau today bombarded NBR with a total of nine separate press releases relating to the initiative).

“The region is transitioning to a modern, high-value economy based on the skills, enterprise and knowledge of its people,” Mr Jones says in a statement today.

The biggest sums in the plan go toward projects aimed at boosting the region’s tourism sector, with up to $13.3m going toward a new crossing and track upgrades for Mount Taranaki and up to $5m being spent on an upgrade for the Taranaki Cathedral.

An additional $10m in funding goes towards the Mount Taranaki project, which will also see a series of new short walks created, will come from the regional council.

The cathedral will undergo a tourist-friendly revamp including “audio-visual guides and multimedia resources.” Construction will start in May 2019 and take up to 15 months.

Economic development agency Venture Taranaki says the plan will bolster the region’s reputation “as both an economic and lifestyle destination.”

In a statement, the chair of the agency’s trust, Robin Brockie, says Taranaki led New Zealand’s growth in tourism spending over the year to the end of February, with $380m of spending.

But decreasing values of exported dairy products and a reliance on oil and gas formed the backdrop of region's 7.61% fall in GDP per capita from 2013-2016. Statistics NZ figures show Taranaki was the worst-hit region in the country during the period and one of only three to have its GDP drop.

Mayor Neil Holdom says the region “took a major hit” over falling oil prices and exploration in Taranaki is now marginal.

“We knew that at some stage our industry was looking at a twilight and nobody knew whether its 20, 30, 40 or 50 years.”

Mr Holdom says the local council is looking at investing in hydrogen technology to use in existing infrastructure for producing fertiliser and methanol. The provincial growth fund will invest $50,000 towards advancing hydrogen technologies.

The alternatives

Mr Jones says Taranaki will now focus on four alternative futures for its economic base – energy, food, the Maori economy and visitors.

The action plan includes almost $2m going to a range of smaller investments into the region’s food network, Maori enterprise, business innovation and clean energy.

Up to $400,000 will go to research into improving State Highway 43, ahead “of a possible multi-million dollar upgrade to the road” aimed at opening up the region. 

In August, a report commissioned by the Taranaki Regional Council found the highway needed $8m of resealing. It’s unclear whether the government is acting on this but Mr Jones says resealing will be needed to fix the highway.

There is also $250,000 being spent on developing a digital tool for farmers to see the “viability of planting trees” on farms. If not directly aimed at, this will assist the government in delivering on its promise to plant one billion new trees by 2027.

The government announced the provincial growth fund in February, a $3b initiative that will invest $1b a year into jobs and infrastructure in the regions.

The plan was criticised after the bulk of initial investments fell in Northland, where New Zealand First has a strong voter base, and National Party leader Simon Bridges called it a "slush fund."

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