25 September 2008

Shame on you Dr Jack Phillips!! Give us back our Town!!

I live in a small town. Its almost at the very bottom of New Zealand on the main road between North and the little bit of South that is left before you hit the sea.

We are on the edge of what is a beautiful river. Unfortunately in the 1800's someone got the great idea to build an abattoir and a paper mill along side of the river (and blast the impressive Mataura Falls to oblivion while they were at it). So Mataura is a working class town, definately more industrial than picturesque.

In the past it has been a very important town - it had the only bridge across the river for miles around. Then they built the railway on 'the other' side of the river and our bridge didn't matter so much anymore.

But the Mill and the Abattoir kept the town humming. They both employed a lot of people. We had our own council and a main street full of busy shops.

Then 8 years ago the Mill closed (the work went overseas) and the town died. The people just gave up, they abandoned homes and businesses. The community spirit died too. The council amalgamated with Gore, a nearby town and Mataura no longer runs its own affairs.

An American investor, a retired dentist by the name of Dr Jack Phillips, who owned properities in beautiful Queenstown and in Gore, took the opportunity to buy the town centre. He owns all but a few of the commercial buildings in our main street. He owns the cinema, he owns the squash club, he owns a church, a masonic lodge building and all are unused. He brought them cheap from people who saw no future for themselves after a devastating and unforseen loss of industry and jobs. Apparently he has a vision for our town.

So far it seems to involve a deserted main street of increasingly dilapidated buildings and charging rents for said neglected buildings that are more in keeping with those charged in a busy urban centre. In fact, thus far it seems to involve actively discouraging potential businesses from starting up in Mataura.

Dr Jack Phillips does not live in New Zealand (that's ok - lots of people don't its not their fault!) and he does not live in Mataura. He comes here for a couple of weeks each year (I believe that is a requirement of holding property in this country if you are a foreign national) to oversee his investments.

His 2008 visit has just drawn to a close and he has finally let us in on what his grand vision for our town actually is. He plans to turn Mataura into a boutique town, with art galleries and antique stores. Sounds lovely? How many boutique towns do you know with a freezing works as the focal point?

Mataura is a town with a lot of social problems. People here are poor. We have the most needy school in the whole of Southland - kids turn up to school with no breakfast. Illiteracy is a BIG issue in our town. So is alcoholism and despair. People in Mataura do not need art galleries and antique stores. We need a green grocer, a dentist, a cafe, a hair dresser, recreational facilities to keep the kids off the streets, a bakery. We need practical stuff.

The Squash Club could be up and running - it is a relatively new building and when last used was all in good repair. But Jack Phillips wants to turn it into a gym, so we miss out. The Movie Theatre has all it needs to be operational and could run quite nicely as a small town theatre. But Dr Jack Phillips wants to turn that into an art studio, so once again we miss out.

His vision for our town has not been formed in consultation with the people that live here. In fact if it were to go ahead, many of the people that live here now would not be able to afford to stay. Where are they supposed to go? Many of them have lived here all their lives.

How can a foreign investor, who does not live in New Zealand, let alone in Mataura, come to own the majority of this small town and decide unilaterally what the direction of our community is to be?


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nigel said...

The people of Mataura are lucky to have you on their side, I hope they know how fortunate they are.

Paul @ Green Pepper said...

Wow, that's a heck of a story! You're doing a fantastic job by standing up for your community. I wish you every success ;-)

kiwimeg said...

Thanks for the encouragement!

The local media is finally asking the right questions and tomorrow we have a national news crew coming to cover the story.

Hopefully a little publicity will help get things moving in a positive way for our community!

Jane Blogs said...

I can't believe that a town could be so powerless to control its own future. Very scary stuff.

Good luck with your fight. :)

kiwimeg said...

It is hard to believe! And so frustrating that the Gore District Council sees no problem with what he is doing. I guess it helps that he contributes a significant amount to their coffers each year in the form of rates.

On a positive note, Jack Phillips has recently put several buildings on the market - several shops in the main street, the movie theatre, the squash courts and one or two others.

Now we are looking for funding/investors to help us buy back our town.

In the meantime there are all sorts of great community projects taking off in Mataura - from a successful community market to free community events in our beautiful new community centre.

Anonymous said...

I love Mataura. Was there as a slaughterman from Malaysia during 2000 to 2004. Beautiful people and landscape, weather too, love the snow, and hunting.