It used to be a re­gional back­wa­ter, but Motueka is thriv­ing – and turn­ing the ta­bles on nearby Nel­son.

North & South - - Contents - BY MIKE WHITE

The ra­dio news that morn­ing about Nel­son’s CBD was grim: more than 30 va­cant shops or of­fices, busi­nesses mov­ing out, meet­ings be­tween the city coun­cil and con­cerned re­tail­ers. But 40 min­utes’ drive around Tas­man Bay, Motueka is bustling. There isn’t an empty shop in the town’s main street.

In­stead of “For Lease” signs, Smok­ing Bar­rel Cafe owner Josiah Smits has a “Now Hir­ing” sign painted on his front win­dow, as he strug­gles to keep up with de­mand. He al­ready em­ploys 16 staff, but ex­pects to have 25 over sum­mer. Peo­ple travel for miles, all the way from Nel­son, for his dough­nuts. In peak sea­son, he’ll make 500 a day and sell them all, and he’s just hired an­other bak­ery space at the back of a nearby butch­ery.

Smits, 30, grew up here and re­mem­bers when peo­ple would griz­zle, “Mot’s such a hole.”

“But now it’s be­come a place peo­ple want to move to and start a fam­ily.”

Across the road, a wo­man stares at a real es­tate com­pany’s win­dow dis­play and sighs. She des­per­ately wants to buy a house here but can’t find any­thing in her price range, so is stay­ing in a mo­tel. Two years ago, when liv­ing in Aus­tralia, she’d vis­ited Motueka, and reck­ons prices have dou­bled since then.

Priced out of Motueka? Motueka, al­ways the poor re­la­tion to Nel­son, a hip­pie han­gout, a hole half­way be­tween the big smoke and the par­adise of Golden Bay? Motueka boom­ing? Who’d have thought.

Not Johny O’don­nell, for starters. O’don­nell was raised in Motueka and left school at 16, af­ter Year 11. “Mot’ was small, I didn’t like that you knew every­one, and I didn’t see any op­por­tu­ni­ties here, and never saw my­self here. I couldn’t wait to get out.”

He moved to Welling­ton, did dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing, then shifted to Dunedin with his now-wife, Marlen. In 2014, they got mar­ried and spent three won­der­ful sum­mer weeks around Motueka, Abel Tas­man and Golden Bay. “We got back to Dunedin and it was nine de­grees and rain­ing and we lit the fire and just looked at each other and said, ‘Screw this, no way. How do we move back to Motueka?’”

With O’don­nell hav­ing started his own dig­i­tal con­sult­ing com­pany, Shifton, and Marlen be­gin­ning as an early child­hood teacher, they wor­ried Motueka might be too small to ac­com­mo­date their ca­reers. “But four years later, we’re still here and we’re not go­ing any­where.”

O’don­nell ini­tially imag­ined most of his work would con­tinue to be in the cities, re­quir­ing him to com­mute to Welling­ton, Auck­land and Syd­ney. But now 80% of his cus­tomers are in Nel­son and

Tas­man, given the strong eco­nomic growth of these re­gions.

When peo­ple ques­tion why he has based his fast-ex­pand­ing busi­ness in Motueka, O’don­nell points out he’s just over 30 min­utes’ drive from Nel­son Air­port, the fifth-busiest in the coun­try, and can be in the cap­i­tal in an­other half hour. Auck­lan­ders have longer mo­tor­way com­mutes every day, he notes. “So I don’t feel any lim­i­ta­tions – it’s ac­tu­ally re­ally con­nected. I see our lo­ca­tion, even though most peo­ple would see it as iso­lat­ing and re­mote, as ac­tu­ally one of our great­est strengths.”

To that end, O’don­nell, 24, plans to bring his clients to him, rather than spend all his time in their of­fices. This way, they can talk busi­ness while sit­ting on a beach, vis­it­ing Abel Tas­man Na­tional Park, or at a win­ery. “It’s a no-brainer to do busi­ness here. Every time I visit some­one in Welling­ton or Auck­land, and I go into even large com­pa­nies, I don’t come across any­one who doesn’t envy the idea of liv­ing some­where like here. And you can make it work.”

O’don­nell says he’s typical of many peo­ple who lived in Motueka as kids, moved away, and have come back for the lifestyle. He grew up in the same street as his two em­ploy­ees, one of whom spent eight years work­ing in Am­s­ter­dam for top com­pa­nies and has just given up big salaries to re­turn home.

“The beat­ing heart of this district is peo­ple who love the out­doors, love the en­vi­ron­ment, who also run suc­cess­ful busi­nesses, who are keen en­trepreneurs and have tal­ented peo­ple.”

Dave Moloney agrees, and reck­ons he’s liv­ing proof of this. He shifted to Nel­son in 2008, but three years later got the chance to be BNZ’S bank man­ager in Motueka. “You didn’t have to ask me twice. We moved to Nel­son be­cause we had to. We moved to Motueka be­cause we wanted to.”

When he ar­rived, lo­cals would ask him where he was liv­ing and Moloney wor­ried they must be suss­ing him out to bur­gle his house. “But they were just gen­uinely be­ing friendly – we found it in­cred­i­bly wel­com­ing.”

In early 2017, Moloney de­cided he wanted to do some­thing for him­self, so he quit the bank, and set up his busi­ness pro­mo­tion and brand­ing com­pany Let the Se­cret Out. “I thought, if this comes un­done, I’m stack­ing shelves at New World on the night shift.”

But it’s worked bril­liantly, and he now has the free­dom to or­gan­ise his day around the rou­tines of his two school-age sons. “And this is my uni­form,” 39-yearold Moloney says, point­ing to his T-shirt and jeans.

He never once thought about shift­ing any­where else to es­tab­lish his busi­ness.

“There’s a whole dif­fer­ence I’ve no­ticed since be­ing here of re­ally giv­ing it a go. Those who are will­ing to put their neck out and start their own thing, get to have the whole busi­ness and lifestyle thing. Es­pe­cially in the last year, Motueka’s go­ing gang­busters. We should be an old, grey, dy­ing town, but it’s just stupid busy – good busy. And it’s be­cause peo­ple have the at­ti­tude, ‘How about we just make it work? How about that?’”

Such is the town’s eco­nomic buoy­ancy, on the back of the tourism, hos­pi­tal­ity, hor­ti­cul­ture and re­tail in­dus­tries, that Moloney jokes they now call Nel­son “Motueka South”.

The main prob­lems are low wages, ris­ing house prices, and a lack of rental ac­com­mo­da­tion, he says. But new sub­di­vi­sions are go­ing in, and there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties for skilled work­ers – two elec­tri­cian mates of his were re­cently scream­ing out for sparkies.

There’s still a strong strain of hip­piedom in Motueka, he adds, with the free-range, or­ganic vibe part of the com­mu­nity. “But we’ve turned it into some­thing a bit more chic, and some of the hip­pies have made a shit­load of money, as well.

“At the same time, the flip­side is there are a lot of con­sul­tants who travel round the world and are still based here. I just think there’s a real shift in peo­ple re­al­is­ing how good they’ve got it. They’ve got the pass­port to par­adise. They don’t have to move any­where. And peo­ple will sup­port gen­uine good bas­tards shift­ing to the area.”

Ten years ago, David and Val Arm­strong trav­elled from their home in Christchurch to Golden Bay for a wed­ding. Near the top of the Tākaka Hill, they stopped at a look­out with views over Rīwaka and Motueka. “And it was at this point I said, ‘This is where I want to live,’” says David, now 75.

When they got down to Motueka, they popped into the com­mu­nity cen­tre. “I was look­ing at the no­tice­board and I re­mem­ber think­ing, look at the num­ber of groups here. It cov­ered ev­ery­thing, there were 50-60 no­tices say­ing, ‘Join us, join us, we do this.’ And I thought, this is a com­mu­nity that’s ac­tive and every­one’s got some­thing they could be in­ter­ested in.”

For their re­tire­ment, the Arm­strongs wanted a town big enough that every­one didn’t know each other’s busi­ness, but small enough that you could help make im­prove­ments to the whole town. They also wanted a kinder cli­mate, away from Christchurch’s freez­ing win­ters, but not some­where so re­mote there weren’t good health ser­vices. “Ev­ery­thing just said, ‘This is the place.’”

David didn’t want to spend his days play­ing golf and bowls, so he set up a web­site pro­mot­ing Motueka, and also a com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment group, Vi­sion Motueka, which has launched an an­nual food fes­ti­val, a com­mu­nity Christ­mas din­ner and a youth ini­tia­tive. Val started an art and craft group that now in­volves more than 50 women.

“You can play your part, and ev­ery­thing you do makes a dif­fer­ence,” says David. “And that’s very ful­fill­ing.”

Be­cause work is of­ten sea­sonal, many Motueka res­i­dents have sev­eral busi­ness in­ter­ests. Ja­nis Ord has a graphic de­sign busi­ness, pro­duces a visi­tor map for the area, has launched Global Kiwi Di­rec­tory, an on­line busi­ness, tourism and prod­uct di­rec­tory, and also es­tab­lished a co-work­ing space, Motropo­lis.

Ord had only been in Motueka a year when her hus­band, Joe, died in 2013. “I thought I’d leave, be­cause I didn’t know any­body.” In­stead, she de­cided to buy a for­mer doc­tors’ clinic and con­vert the space into of­fices for peo­ple like her who were work­ing from home. Within three months she was full; about a dozen busi­nesses now run from Motropo­lis.

“I’ve al­ways done stuff, but the real rea­son for do­ing this af­ter Joe died was to stop me be­ing sad – so I didn’t feel lost. And now I know every­body.”

Among those based in Motropo­lis are Rachel who does mas­sage; Dave who rents out mo­tor­bikes; Claire who co­or­di­nates a busi­ness group; Lisa who does

Josiah Smits set up his Motueka cafe two years ago and has strug­gled to keep up with de­mand.

Motueka’s cli­mate is among the best in the coun­try, while its in­let and fore­shore pro­vide a range of re­cre­ation op­tions.

New streets and sub­di­vi­sions have been laid out on Motueka’s edges to cope with its ris­ing pop­u­la­tion and the de­mand for hous­ing.

Top: Dave Moloney in Motueka’s main street. Above: Health food shop own­ers Shirley Mcguire ( left) and hus­band Mike Fitzger­ald, with Mike’s daugh­ter Nikki.

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