Dunedin can sometimes seem like the neglected afterthought of New Zealand’s main centres, unappreciated by all except those who choose to live there. Peter Newport reports on what’s coming next for Dunedin after Cadbury shuts its doors.
Some words are so powerful that people should need a licence to use them. I’m going to use one of those words shortly, but first I have to quickly prepare the scene and make some excuses.
In terms of having a relationship with a city, Dunedin is my first love. But now, on frequent visits, I worry a lot that this Edinburgh of the South is losing her charm, looking tired and losing her way. To me, this gorgeous stone-clad stunner of a city is looking dangerously close to drifting backwards rather than forging forwards. It’s a very fine line.
And that dangerous word I really feel so nervous about using is: Dour. It’s so powerful because it sounds and looks like what it means. Relentlessly severe, stern or gloomy in manner or appearance. It’s a truly awe-inspiring word of Scottish Gaelic origin.
But don’t worry. This is a love story that will probably have a happy ending. But first here’s the problem.
Dunedin has really bad weather, if you like warmth and sun. It’s great weather if you like romantic sea mists, driving Gothic rain or winds that would make even a sturdy wooden sail boat creak and groan. It’s weather to drink whisky to.
The tiny airport is a very long way from the city and even a Thursday night in Dunedin can look like someone’s deployed one of those freaky neutron bombs that kill people but leave buildings intact. The moody red reflection of slightly old-fashioned neon signs in the slick, wet streets completes the impression of a place where you might not want to schedule your next company celebration or family holiday. I well remember my car getting locked into a parking building that closed at 6.00 pm.
There’s heaps of good stuff too. The old buildings, the university, the albatross colony, Larnach Castle, the museums and art galleries, the second hand book stores, the Otago Peninsula and even the strangely old-fashioned but apparently thriving Otago Daily Times.
But here’s the point: the new Dunedin that we were all promised has not happened. That’s the high tech, thrusting, leading edge, pulsating with energy Dunedin. The one that Chorus promised us – Gigatown. It hasn’t happened, and might never.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the city is without hope. Quite the contrary. It’s just not likely to come from where you might have expected it. To navigate to the good news and how Dunedin is going to get to that great future that we all want the city to find I spoke to some of the key players in town. They were all wonderfully honest, direct and insightful. They left me feeling that things are going to be OK. Perhaps even better than OK.
My first call was to TVNZ’s Dunedin reporter, Mark Hathaway. He covers the entire south of the South Island and we’ve shared some silly stories over a few glasses of wine in remote, snowy parts of the region. We have a similar sense of humour, which means he’s polite enough to laugh at my nostalgic memories of the golden days of TV journalism.
Hathaway reckons Dunedin is going to be fine. He’s 36, Dunedin born and bred. He tells me – modestly – that he’s one of many bright, talented people who have come back down south after savouring the heady, seedy delights of Auckland. In short, he genuinely believes in Dunedin. When I call him he’s in the middle of Foveaux Strait shooting a One News piece on the destruction of infected oysters off Stewart Island.
“I would describe myself as a Dunedin optimist,” says Hathaway with the sound of violent sea conditions in the background. “Vogel Street and the warehouse district development is the perfect example of rejuvenation in Dunedin. Plus, as Auckland has clearly become too full we are seeing organisations such as ACC and Silver Fern farms set up new offices in Dunedin. It’s like the reversal of a flow that previously was south to north in the eighties and nineties. Now it’s very much north to south, which has to be good for Dunedin.”
“What about Dunedin’s identity – is it changing?” I ask, fishing for either an Edinburgh of the South or Gigatown reference. “I think it’s the university,” he says as he gets hammered by horizontal wind in his tiny media boat. “But it’s not the same as the old university image. Its changed from the old sofa-burning, protesting, heavy-drinking scarfies to a new image of ‘let’s get a degree and let’s get a job’. Much more serious but much better for Dunedin. The new stadium has been a huge, positive addition, bringing big events to Dunedin even though the way it was financed was something of a disaster. But we’re not broke. The stadium didn’t break us.”
I can hear long-suffering, wonderful TVNZ news cameraman Ross Wilson in the background, giving Hathaway a hard time for casually chatting on the phone while the rest of the media contingent get tossed around on one of New Zealand’s most dangerous stretches of ocean.
“Is there one thing about Dunedin that makes you want to tear your hair out?” I don’t want Hathaway to spend his valuable time only being optimistic about Dunedin.
After the slightest of pauses, and I suspect with a twinkle in his eye, he decides to throw diplomacy to the wind. “There is a tendency for people in Dunedin to nit-pick and moan about stuff. You could give everybody in Dunedin a million dollars and half of them would moan about it.” We both laugh, knowing it to be true.
Next stop, Ian Taylor. He and I both started work in Dunedin many moons ago when he was a kids TV presenter and I was a young TV news reporter. He’s gone on to be New Zealander of the Year and runs Animation Research, the highly successful TV sports graphics company. He’s been awarded a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit as well as Emmys for his TV work.
By coincidence Taylor is also bobbing around on a boat, but in his case in the slightly more calm and tropical waters of Bermuda. He’s not on an America’s Cup yacht, but commuting to work at the America’s Cup village on a slow local ferry.
In Dunedin, where the business culture can be markedly white and male, Taylor is also proud of his lineage with a Pākehā father and Māori mother. In 2012 he was named Outstanding Māori Business Leader of the year.
He says the Gigatown competition that Dunedin won had turned out to be a bit of a disappointment and makes the point that the high-speed internet connections that the Chorus competition provided were really just a blank canvas onto which successful business ideas needed to be painted. The super-fast internet was not the solution to Dunedin’s growth challenges, but a means to an end.
It’s clear that Ian Taylor, as the high priest or poster boy for Dunedin innovation, feels personally disappointed by the failure of the Gigatown dream. But it has done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. There’s a new Dunedin project in the pipeline – highly secret – which Taylor reckons might just fix Dunedin’s failure to launch woes. It’s not Ian’s own project, but as with many other Dunedin future initiatives he’s become an enthusiastic flag carrier.
He shares details of the project with me, on a 100% confidential basis, and I agree that it has the power to change everything. It sounds like it could be the equivalent of Auckland’s Sky Tower or Sydney’s Opera House.
So, what hurdles remain? “It’s the usual. Making sure that people don’t shoot it down in flames before it even gets built. Getting the council on board, making sure it does not die a death from the resource consent process. Keeping people positive. Getting it started.”
Ian Taylor has promised exclusivity to The Spinoff on this secret project, and that’s a promise I’ll hold him to. It sounds great. I want it to happen. But his point about local negativity is starting to become a common denominator.
I remember seeing Invercargill mayor Tim Shadbolt make a short speech in the rain at a hospital food protest in Dunedin last year. He drove up in the Invercargill mayoral car to support the protesters. I’ll never forget the way he was mobbed by adoring Dunedin people who literally said to him “Will you come up to Dunedin and be our mayor?” They touched his wet jacket with an almost religious, fawning desperation. Rather odd. From what I can tell there’s nothing seriously wrong with the existing mayor of Dunedin, Dave Cull, who is serving a third term. It all seemed a bit adulterous.
My next interview is with the Man of the Moment, Jim O’Malley. He’s just raised almost $6 million from the public to rescue the iconic Cadbury chocolate factory from closure. On Thursday he announced that he’s going to try and take the project forward without any Cadbury involvement as their terms were too tight. What’s more, it sounded like the Cadbury bigwigs were not exactly supporting the people of Dunedin in their crowdfunding campaign.
O’Malley is on the Dunedin City Council but he also spent 25 years overseas working in the technology and pharmaceutical industries. So he knows how the world turns.
I asked him why he was backing chocolate and not a high-tech future for Dunedin.
“High tech ventures are actually quite high risk. Chocolate is a product that has better profit margins and you know that the public already want it and will buy it. It’s a less glamorous but safer investment to be honest.” Jim mentions Dunedin tech company ventures that he claims have cost $50 million and produced little success. He’s clearly over technology.
“Chocolate is perhaps less sexy but I would say a much more certain bet.”
I ask O’Malley about obstacles to doing business in Dunedin. He also has come across the problem of locals being less than positive about new ideas, although clearly almost $6 million of support for the new chocolate business shows some enthusiasm.
“There’s a tendency in Dunedin for people to take the position that anything imaginative is not going to succeed. And if you let that attitude dominate, which it does here sometimes, then that becomes a problem.”
That’s a problem that one of Dunedin’s leading businesswomen comes across quite often. Cheryl Adams heads the Dunedin operations of international tech consultancy Intergen.
Intergen specialises in tailoring Microsoft solutions for individual business clients. “There can be a negative attitude in Dunedin, especially around technology” she tells me. “The problem really is that people expect the technology to solve all their problems. In fact the technology is only there to facilitate their business goals. It’s up to each business to decide on their goals, then we can help them get there.”
It’s a subject close to Adam’s heart. She also supports other women in business in Dunedin as they come across similar hurdles – both technical and cultural. “It is white and it is male in Dunedin. But as a woman with both technical and management skills I can cut through a lot of that.” It’s not a coincidence that Adams was previously General Manager at Ian Taylor’s Animation Research Ltd.
To illustrate how she often finds businesses misunderstand technology, and I suspect this is not limited to Dunedin, Adams explains using the example of a warm bed. “If my business goal is to produce a warm bed then how that is produced does not really matter. Whether it’s an electric blanket, a hot water bottle or even a warm partner – it does not matter. The warm bed is the target. Technology is the means to an end … our clients need to tell us what their end game is, not necessarily how they think that might be achieved.”
I get her point and also feel her pain. I suspect there must have been times when the glass ceiling in Dunedin seemed particularly unbreakable, but she’s done it and is helping other women do the same. She also disagrees passionately with Jim O’Malley on his point regarding low margins and high risk in technology focussed enterprises. Adams argues that by using proven technologies, and adapting them for specific Dunedin businesses, it’s possible to remove risk and improve profit margins.
I decided to ask one of the team responsible for Dunedin’s economic development just what the numbers are and how the city is doing. Is the city growing? Are more people arriving than leaving?
Fraser Liggett is Economic Development Programme Manager for the Dunedin City Council.
“The latest economic data that we’ve been looking at is based on GDP per capita and Dunedin is trending above the national average. We are growing at about 1.7% as opposed to the national average of around 1.1%. A growth rate of 2.5% is part of our current ten-year plan.”
Liggett is indefatigably positive about Dunedin. He’s worked overseas and knows how good Dunedin is and can be. He’s the right man for the job and won’t acknowledge that there’s any negativity in Dunedin that can hold back big projects. He has an endless list of hopeful start-ups and successful mid stage businesses in Dunedin. It all sounds great. He won’t even tell me one thing about Dunedin that makes him want to tear his hair out in frustration. “I’d call those type of things challenges not frustrations… things that we can overcome to become one of the world’s greatest small cities”.
Certainly Dunedin has wonderfully affordable houses hovering just over the $330,000 average price point. I ask Liggett how many people are moving to Dunedin from growth-challenged Auckland and re-construction-challenged Christchurch.
“There is a trend upwards in terms of net migration,” he says. “We are up 8% to December 2016. That’s around 600 people. But there’s more we need to do, to get on the radar, get our story out there, build our knowledge base.”
I’ve looked at some history around Dunedin net migration and the statistics are incredibly distorted by the students who flood into town but then leave. It’s over 20,000 students each year, or a fifth of the entire Dunedin population. And Dunedin’s head count is only 2.5% of the national population.
Ian Taylor is convinced that the secret to Dunedin’s growth and success is a change of attitude. “The city needs a vision. People up north think we’re just a bunch of moaners, but we need to grasp a big idea, get stuck in and make it happen.”
I think he’s right. And secretly I love the strange weather and the abrasive austerity of Dunedin.
On a recent visit I drove to the top of Mount Cargill. Often it’s shrouded in rain clouds, but on this day there was not a cloud in the sky.
At the top of Mount Cargill is Dunedin’s TV and radio transmitter. When Ian Taylor and I started in TV this is where our work would be broadcast from. But now, even though the view over the harbour and the peninsula is spectacular, this huge steel tower is a monument to technology that has moved on. It’s now a world connected by fibre optic cable. A world dominated by Silicon Valley and a media landscape that is changing much faster than anyone was prepared for.
Somehow Dunedin has to find its place in that new world. It is a beautiful city but the cultural, business and economic challenges that lie ahead are scary. It seems to me that Dunedin needs to find The Next Big Thing. To find a leader and a business model that will shine through the misty rain and the assembled naysayers. Somehow I think the rest of New Zealand shares my soft spot for Dunedin, but it’s up to Dunedin to figure out its own answers. I hope it finds them.
This story was updated on 5.25pm to remove a line suggesting funding is advanced for Ian Taylor’s project.
The Society section is sponsored by AUT. As a contemporary university we’re focused on providing exceptional learning experiences, developing impactful research and forging strong industry partnerships. Start your university journey with us today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.