Investing in the Timber Trail: Saving a village for $15,000

1:46 pm on 15 June 2021

Investing in the Timber Trail would continue because it saves Maniaiti/Benneydale from becoming a ghost town, Waitomo District councillors decided last week in deliberations on the 10 Year Plan submissions.

Pureora Forest

The Timber Trail travels through the Pureora Forest. Photo: Supplied / DOC

The council's continued investment of $15,000 a year for the Timber Trail was opposed by mayor John Robertson in a Facebook post on 9 May, and taken up by 13 people who opposed the investment in submissions.

The mayor was the sole opposition when it came to the vote in deliberations.

Councillor Janene New said promoting the Timber Trail was bringing visitors into the district from the south, and businesses were being established in Maniaiti/Benneydale because of it.

"There's a number of BnBs there that have become established since the trail was established. A coffee cart, a café, a service station. They all rely on the Timber Trail traffic as well. So we are not talking about the [Timber Trail] businesses, we are talking about the trail as a tourist attraction," she said.

"We have invested money in Hamilton Waikato Tourism, we need to invest money at the other end because our district goes down to the other end as well. "So we are investing money there to attract people from the south.

"We are not talking about businesses we are talking about economic development for the future of our district. To give opportunity for people to engage in business or to be employed - so we don't end up a little ghost town.

"If we didn't have the promotion of the Timber Trail the village of Maniaiti/Benneydale would be looking in a lot poorer state than what it is. And we need to continue to promote people to come through Maniaiti/Benneydale so that it can have an opportunity to thrive."

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The approach to Benneydale. Photo: RNZ / Susan Strongman

The Waitomo District Council's money was part of a sub-regional arrangement that included its own $15,000, plus $30,000 from the Ruapehu district and $45,000 from Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

The Ruapehu District Council had someone on staff to manage the joint fund, councillor Sue Smith said.

"If we don't contribute to that we will fall off. Their attractions, their marketing includes this district as well but if they do it on their own, they will just be promoting Ruapehu," she said.

Visit Ruapehu acted as the lead agency. If Waitomo District Council pulled its funding, the MBIE money might also be pulled, she said.

The council first supported the Timber Trail in 2015, paying $30,000 a year for three years to help fund a marketing entity for the trail and contribute to paying for a marketing person. In 2018 the council halved its input to $15,000 for three years.

"The concept at the beginning was to help launch a marketing plan for the Timber Trail," Robertson said.

The Timber Trail now had more than 10,000 annual visitors and was what he would now call a mature business, he said.

"The accountant in me urges council to end this. This needs to end at some time, the only specific grant we give," he said.

The WDC did not support the commercial operators at the Waitomo Caves who funded their own marketing campaigns, he said.

The Timber Trail operators said they were achieving substantial returns in terms of patronage, Robertson said.

"Private operators should now be taking over that funding responsibility, to market their own places and not have this council's ratepayers funding the marketing promotion of those businesses along the timber trail."

In 2018 Robertson complained to the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) over then Waitomo mayor Brian Hanna and deputy mayor Guy Whitaker's involvement in council decisions related to the funding of marketing for the Timber Trail.

Whitaker is a director and Hanna a shareholder of Timber Trail Adventures, a private company that owns and operates the Timber Trail Lodge located in the Pureora Forest along the cycleway.

In 2019 the OAG wrote to Hanna saying it was of the view that he and Whitaker had "technically breached the legislation" by participating in some council discussions where they had a pecuniary interest, but that it did not consider the breaches warranted any further action.

"We are not suggesting that you (or the deputy mayor) took advantage of your position on the council for personal gain," the letter, seen by Local Democracy Reporting, said.

Whitaker left the council chamber during last week's discussion and did not vote.

Smith said some of the submitters against the Timber Trail grant seemed to think the council was supporting the Timber Trail Lodge.

The submitters also seemed to think the Timber Trail itself was a private business, when it was not, Smith said.

"I think the public at large, the whole district, should understand that money is not for one business," she said.

"It's not just the businesses that are there, it's the fact the businesses employ people. So, its employment. There aren't many weekends if any, that there aren't bikes on the back of vehicles in the [Te Kūiti] main street. And so, I think that has to be acknowledged," Smith said.

The annual grant was entirely for advertising and promotion, councillor Phil Brodie said.

More than 15,000 people traversed the Timber Trail in the 10 months to the end of May, staff said.

"The majority of those people are coming from the North, they come from Hamilton, Auckland," councillor Allan Goddard said.

Timber Trail visitors had to drive through Te Kūiti where they could stop for food and fuel.

"And I think in the whole discussion here the thing that is missing is the amount of money. We are contributing $15,000, is a very small part towards promotion but in return we are getting millions of dollars.

"That's the bit been missed in the whole discussion. I think there are some figures around that contribution, if we could get hold of those?

"What we are doing is trying to attract people through Te Kūiti and through our community which benefits employment in the community. We are not spending money just to promote four or five businesses, that's not what it's about."

Councillors refused the mayor's request to state the current roll over of the grant would be the last.

"It would be very naïve of us to foresee three years hence. We need to see the reporting, how successful it is and make that judgement at that time," New said.

"It will be a different council from us at that time as well, I don't think we should pre-empt what that council should or shouldn't do, said Smith.

Staff confirmed there are Key Performance Indicators around business contribution with Hamilton/Waikato Tourism.

"It would be good to see if the figures that go to the businesses on return on investment, could be made public to councillors," Goddard said.

The Pureora Timber Trail is a two-day mountain bike ride in the central North Island and is part of Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail.

The 85 kilometre trail follows old logging tramways and tracks through Pureora Forest Park. Described as remote, with stunning scenery, awe-inspiring swing-bridges, prolific birdlife and historic logging tramways, it's also said to also create epic appeal for hard core mountain bikers.

Most people ride it in two days, from Pureora village in the north, to Ongarue in the south. It is a grade 2-3 trail, making it suitable for moderately experienced and capable riders.

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