The newly opened Paparoa Track is providing an economic boost to Blackball. (Photo: Jase Blair/Katabatic Creative Ltd.)

Blackball: The little West Coast town with big economic ambitions

The birthplace of the Labour Party is once again at the forefront of a new movement, this time harnessing the power of the collective to step away from coal towards a low carbon future.

Blackball is a small place with a huge history.  This week the town, 29 kilometres from Greymouth, gained a long-awaited boost with the opening of the country’s 10th Great Walk, the Paparoa Track. The $12 million track has been built as a tribute to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine disaster, and is already 80% booked between now and April.

But this is far from the only thing going on in the West Coast settlement named after the Blackball Shipping Company, the English firm which invested in the original producer of coal near the town’s present site in 1893. Blackball has been the birthplace of important movements and it is again at the forefront of an economic innovation. The first Federation of Labour started there in 1908 after miners went on strike in support of a half-hour midday break so they could have something to eat. A number of the leading strikers went on to form the New Zealand Labour Party. To celebrate the special place the town holds in the New Zealand labour movement, Blackball resident Paul Maunder established Mahi Tupuna The Blackball Museum of Working Class History 10 years ago.

Now, Blackball is the scene for the formation of a new crusade: a co-operative to help the West Coast transition to a coal-less, low carbon future.

Following discussions at the annual May Day event in 2017, a group of Blackball locals and outside supporters founded the co-operative incubator Te Puawai Co-operative Society with the aim of building on the strength of collective relationships across the district. People more accustomed to finding individual business solutions may find the concept difficult, says Maunder. But drawing on the local pākehā history of collective actions and the recent examples of iwi success in the South Island, using a co-operative model makes a lot of sense in the local area.

The Paparoa Track is already 80% booked until April. (Photo: Jase Blair/Katabatic Creative Ltd.)

So far Te Puawai has helped set up a regional co-operative to run the successful 2018 Readers and Writers Festival and held a writers’ retreat in October this year. Going forward, both events will be run biennially. The co-op has also set up a Blackball-based shuttle service in partnership with established West Coast shuttle firm, Paparoa Shuttles, to transport trampers and cyclists to and from the new Paparoa Track.

Te Puawai Publishing co-op has also printed plays and a novel by local writers, and the Tall Tales Storytelling co-op is planning a Summer Shakespeare project and other events. Meanwhile, a tramping supplies co-operative shop at the museum is under development, as is a community education centre at a former school heritage building and various waste minimisation projects.

Te Puawai acts as the umbrella for all new projects until they are ready to set up their own co-operative structure. “Members can be individuals, trade unions, community organisations, businesses, or NGOs. Each member holds at least four shares worth $5 each. Maximum shareholding is 800 shares. There is 1 vote per member,” its website says. This is different from traditional business structures where voting power is by percentage of shares held.

The co-operative is building on the values of the coal miners, emphasising mutual support instead of the isolation and stress of single-owner businesses, Maunder says. He is frustrated by the endless talk of rebuilding the West Coast’s economy with little action, as first native timber logging and now coal mining is closing down. By setting up co-operatives, Blackball locals are creating a solidarity economy powered not by extraction, but by relationships .

Declaration of interest: Karen Davis holds one share in Te Puawai.

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