22 Jan 2024

How a Paihia drug park became a family-friendly destination

8:45 am on 22 January 2024
Project driver Grant Harnish and Rosie, a “Northland special”, at the new park’s waterfall.

Project driver Grant Harnish and Rosie, a "Northland special", at the new park's waterfall. Photo: RNZ / Peter De Graaf

People power has triumphed in a once-neglected corner of Northland's top tourist town, where locals have succeeded in driving out drug dealers and "unsavoury" activity.

But they did not do it with a big stick - they did it with a waterfall, a children's slide and free barbecues.

For years the southern end of Paihia's main beach, with its dimly lit car park, grotty toilets and rubbish-filled culverts, was a magnet for bad behaviour.

Fed-up locals could do little about it - until they hit on the idea of filling the area with families and holidaymakers, forcing dealers to look for more secluded places to conduct their business.

Grant Harnish, a Paihia business owner who led the project, said despite the corner's natural beauty, it regularly attracted trouble.

That was partly because a gravel area of the reserve was used as an unofficial car park.

"At night there was a lot of unsavoury behaviour. Drugs and all that sort of thing. And over the Covid period that was accentuated with some of the challenges the town faced," Harnish said.

Community group Focus Paihia took inspiration from Australian urban design guru David Engwicht, who had worked with the group on a series of beautification projects around the seaside town.

Engwicht has a simple philosophy for discouraging bad behaviour in public places.

"Rather than try and push people away, what we need to do is provide really good behaviour," Harnish said.

"So, if we create a nice environment, we'll get good behaviour, and that brings in more good behaviour.

"As a consequence, you end up improving an area without trying to do it with a big stick. You do it with friendship and smiles and by making it a people-friendly space."

A community-built park at the southern end of Paihia’s main beach features picnic and play areas, a tube slide, barbecues, paths, plantings and a waterfall.

A community-built park at the southern end of Paihia's main beach features picnic and play areas, a tube slide, barbecues, paths, plantings and a waterfall. Photo: RNZ / Peter De Graaf

The money to make it happen

While that was a good idea in theory, what Focus Paihia lacked was the money needed to make it happen - until an anonymous resident offered an "extraordinarily generous" $100,000 donation.

The only condition was that it be spent on a single, significant project that would benefit families and children.

Participants of a public workshop in January last year decided unanimously to put the money towards transforming the southern end of Paihia Beach.

Harnish said what became known as "the 100k Project" was entirely community driven and managed.

The Far North District Council came to the party by allowing Focus Paihia to use funding already set aside for renovation of the reserve's "terrible" public toilets.

Months of work by an estimated 100 community volunteers went into the park, which was officially opened late last year.

It included electric barbecues, a waterfall, a tube slide, children's play areas, seating, paths, plantings and a revamped toilet and changing block.

A rubbish-choked stormwater drain was extended and covered, allowing the grassy area available for play and picnics to be expanded.

Crucially, the gravel parking area was removed and new lighting was installed.

A once run-down toilet block has been upgraded as part of the project.

A once run-down toilet block has been upgraded as part of the project. Photo: RNZ / Peter De Graaf

Harnish said combining barbecues, toilets and play facilities in one place made it ideal for families with children of any ages.

He said the end result was "spectacular".

"I love it. It's probably one of our best projects yet."

'Since this went in all that's gone'

The project had drawn complaints from people who liked to park their cars on the gravel area in front of the toilets, or around the corner at Stockyard Point.

"There's always lots of parking in Kings Road, which is only 100 meters down the road. But of course convenience is everything when you're parking, so there was some negative feedback about that," Harnish said.

"But once we actually started doing the project, people understood what we were trying to achieve and there wasn't a single negative comment. It's become hugely popular."

Businesses had also contributed to the project.

Up to 40 tonnes of rocks had been donated for the culvert and water feature, and a Bay of Islands electrical firm had offered "super-sharp discounted deals" and free labour when the money left for lighting was running low.

"Companies all over Northland chipped in to help make it happen because it was a huge amount of work to get done for $100,000.

"Volunteer labour was a big thing too. So we are super lucky with the community that we have.

"They all chipped in and made it happen, and not just the people that came here and picked up shovels and things like that. It was also the people bringing food down each day to feed us."

Nicki Kempthorne, who manages the nearby Edgewater Palms Apartments, said much of the trouble in the area used to come from people being able to drive around the bluff and park where they could not be seen.

Problems included drug and alcohol use and several cases of people being attacked near the toilets.

"Since this went in all that's gone. Completely gone.

"There's no access [by car] and it's got a different feel now. There are people down there picnicking every night, and big groups at the weekends.

"It's just great to see people getting pleasure out of it," Kempthorne said.

When RNZ paid a visit, the park was bustling with overseas visitors, holidaying Kiwis and locals.

Leonie and Sabrina, from Germany, gave the new park a thumbs-up.

"The view's amazing. Some people cooked behind us so it was really nice to stay here. We felt really cosy," Leonie said.

Sabrina added they had found a parking spot just metres away from the beach.

"I also really like the toilets and the free showers you can use after your swim," she said.

Lou Anne, from France, visited the beach once before, in May last year, and was amazed by the transformation.

"The place is very changed because you have many barbecues, big toilets and space on the grass for play or just chilling by the beach. It is much better."

Rachael, a Paihia resident visiting the park with her one-year-old daughter Hazel, said a "fantastic effort" had gone into the project.

"The locals here are so involved with what's happening in Paihia. They really want to improve the facilities for people, for locals and visitors alike."

Harnish said "unsavoury activity" had dropped dramatically since the park was completed.

"It's not perfect, it's not going to be perfect at any place in New Zealand, but it has vastly improved on where it was," he said.

"Families didn't stop here before. Now they come here and enjoy this beautiful space. It was such a waste, unkempt and with horrible dirty toilets, but now it's a place you can relax and sit by the waterfall and watch your kids having a great time.

"That's what it's all about."

Previous projects by Focus Paihia include Waitangi Mountain Bike Park, the creation of Horotutu Park on what was once an unsightly car park next to Paihia wharf, the reconstruction of a public toilet block once described as the worst in New Zealand, and an upgrade of the Village Green.

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