Mayor Boult on growth - "Let's hear more business voices."
I recently attended the very well deserved induction of local icon, Sir John Davies into the NZ Business Hall of Fame. Like Sir John, all of his fellow inductees have built up highly successful businesses pretty much from scratch, and in doing so provided employment for thousands of New Zealanders, and added real value to NZ Inc. Good businesses do that – they are an essential part of our social and economic being.
This got me to thinking about our local businesses. Much has been said recently regarding growth in our district. For many, particularly those involved in business, a reasonable level of growth is desirable. That said, others are happy with the district the way it is and don’t wish to see growth in either visitor numbers or permanent population.
Dealing with population firstly, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We live in a free country and if someone can afford to buy or rent a property in the district, and live here, then there is little council can do except ensure that infrastructure is provided to maintain our desirable and generally envied standard of living. For those who would suggest that Council stop further residential development, can I say to you that the outcome from that would be a never-ending increase in property prices. It is already hideously expensive to buy a house in the district. So my concern lies with the vital workforce of our district to be able to find a place to live. And at a price that doesn’t mean they need to hold down three jobs and live like church mice to pay the mortgage. I would hate us to end up like say, Aspen, where most of the workforce commute in and out every day, simply because they can’t afford the property prices. The wonderful mix of the many and varied folk who make up our communities are, in my opinion, one of our greatest assets.
Dealing now with visitors, take your mind for a moment back to the global financial crisis. Businesses in the district at that time were struggling with lower spend and visitor numbers which were challenging their commercial viability. Some businesses actually went to the wall. With the recovery from the GFC around 2012, visitor numbers started to grow, and on the back of that we have seen probably the strongest growth in visitor numbers the district has ever seen in its history. Some thought it will never stop - well it has. Businesses are reporting to me that they are seeing a drop in numbers, and while no one is hitting the panic button, it’s a wake-up call that growth doesn’t automatically occur.
Now I am not for growth for the sake of growth. However, there does need be some incentive for businesses to upgrade and expand their product offering, whatever that may be, to ensure that we maintain our position as New Zealand’s most desirable destination. We do need to remember that we are the poster child for New Zealand’s largest industry. While double digit growth is not desirable or sustainable, what business does need instead is growth in value and spend by visitors, less so more numbers. And that is what we should be aiming for.
As I said at the start, we need business. Quite simply, the economy of our district is dependent on the tourism industry. Like it or not, it’s how most in our district directly or indirectly earn their living. Strong and viable businesses are able to invest back in to their businesses to provide better product offerings, to employ more people and to ensure they are paid realistic and attractive wages.
We are fortunate in the district in that the vast majority of our business people have the district’s best interest at heart. And at this point I want to address some people who would say I’m ‘pro-growth’. Actually I’m pro-community. That’s the job that in all conscience I took on three years ago and it’s ‘the community’ that I want to fight for, for another three years. I’m pro-getting public transport right, I’m pro-making sure our schools and health facilities can sustain, I’m pro-social well-being and social licence. Yes, our businesses want to be profitable and provide a return on their investment, but they are also concerned for the social welfare of those they employ, and the environment, which is the ultimate reason that people come to visit our home. And think about some of the wonderful businesses this district has spawned – AJ Hackett, Skyline, Magic Memories, Mons Royale, and First Table spring to mind, and there are many others.
To come back to the debate about growth, I am left with no illusions about the views of some people who feel growth is not such a good thing. I am not so sure about the business community. Whether this voice is deliberately avoiding the flack of those feeling less enamoured of tourists I am not sure. I am sure the business community will have a view, as entrepreneurs, as start-ups, as stalwarts, as good employers, as employee’s dependent on successful business, and as critically important members of our community. We need to acknowledge the role business plays in this debate, my hope is that we hear a balance of voices.
Main Image: Former Mayor Sir John Davies at this year's Business Hall of Fame Awards.