Trouble at the mill town
‘What Kawerau needs,’ says one child, ‘is a KFC and a Gucci store’
Stomping out of Kawerau’s bottle shop at 9.15am on a Monday morning, an 18-pack of Cody’s 8 per cent under one arm, a heavyset man chuckles and cracks a can before opening the car door and offering one to the passenger.
‘‘You get to know the people who come in early,’’ the manager says. ‘‘Sometimes there’s a line outside. You’d be surprised how many there are.’’
Across the way the Cayman Sports Club is pulling ‘‘breakfast handles’’ to the clack of pokie machines and racing commentary. No food is on display. A sign advertises $5 toasties.
Despite the hour, the dimly-lit gaming lounge features 18 punters playing the 18 pokie machines. No one speaks as they contribute their share of the $2.4 million take the town of just 7000 contributes in pokie proceeds.
That’s $342 per resident, on average.
‘‘If we didn’t have the machines, they would just gamble online and there would be no benefit to the town through the trust,’’ the owner says.
‘‘We have strict rules on who can be here, when enough is enough, and our trust gives everything back to the community. We bought a new ambulance for the town which is going very well.’’ The ambulance cost about $170,000. Dilapidated houses, most built in the 1980s when Kawerau was a thriving mill town, sit in clusters along some town streets. They show how time can be cruel. The paper mill used to employ large numbers with policies in place encouraging employees live locally but those days are long gone.
Roofs are warped, cladding missing and holes appear in floors and walls.
‘‘Some of the landlords around here are terrible,’’ Kawerau mayor Malcolm Campbell says.
‘‘There needs to be some action from government about the healthy homes. It’s all well and good to have these laws but if there is no one enforcing them to keep their properties well maintained, they are not going to.’’
Amid all this, hope remains and a plan to save the town is about to bear fruit. Hope is most easily
seen in the eyes of children smiling and chatting as they walk past the addiction-gripped hotspots towards an addiction-free haven, Tarawera School.
Stop and ask one of the students, they will tell you they love this town and want to stay to help it grow. ‘‘You don’t see all the good things that happen here,’’ one said. ‘‘I love this town. When a little girl went missing on her way home from school we all went out and searched for her. We just did it. We all banded together.’’
They say Kawerau has had a bad reputation and people are quick to judge on first impressions. Wisdom rings from the words. Pick any town or city in New Zealand. There are 9am booze-buyers, pokie clubs running hot and run-down houses and beneficiaries and drug pushers and gangs and drug use.
The problem in Kawerau is that, with only 7000 residents, these problems are magnified. But the school, police, and council have formed a plan to save their community.
Nobody else was going to.
Only 53.2 per cent of the labour force is employed. Although that has risen from 31.7 per cent in 2014, the town is still in a hangover from when the paper mill stopped employing as many people. In the 1980s it needed 2000 people, but a downturn in the timber industry saw many of these jobs disappear and, in 2012, another 100 jobs were cut.
And a diminished mill caused a domino effect in the town: the lack of jobs led to unemployment, unemployment led to poverty, poverty led to gangs, gangs led to crime, crime led to drugs, and drugs led to addiction.
Police have now targeted the pushers and organised criminals in a blitz operation known as Notus, which resulted in more than $3.5 million of assets seized and 57 arrests, including 11 patched Mongrel Mob members.
The operation also gave police the names and details of 450 drug users, but instead of staking out these individuals, officers took the alternative approach of finding them access to rehabilitation programmes – something they hope will be important as the drug supply dries up.
‘‘We are not going to be able to arrest our way out of addiction,’’ Sergeant Al Fenwick says. ‘‘We treat addiction as a health issue.’’
With gang leaders locked up in court proceedings, police then took advantage of quieter streets.
‘‘There is real hope in this town now that we can help a lot of addicts,’’ Fenwick says. ‘‘We’ve also had a rise in self-referrals for addiction. These are people we can help the most.’’
Aside from rehabilitation and arrests, Fenwick says the perception of gang life is changing.
‘‘We’ve also shown these young people that gangs are not above the law,’’ he says.
‘‘We’ve taken away their toys and they are less able to recruit now. With the drugs drying up, we are getting more and more self-referred addicts looking to seek help.’’
Now that the addiction issue was being tackled, the community started to focus on employment. Mayor Campbell, councillors and industry groups stopped pushing people into work and, instead, started bringing work to town. Kawerau’s access to a rail link and geothermal power were attractive to a range of large-scale industries and saw many committing to town. A new economic report, prodded by council, even predicts there will be 1460 jobs created in Kawerau in the next 12 years.
The biggest announcement is the $180 million wood fibre processing mill operated by juggernaut Guangxi Fenglin which is expected to generate 100 direct jobs from 2020.
An inland container port will follow, leading to at least 25 direct jobs.
Finally a geothermally powered milk processing plant is the town’s icing on the cake and will employ between 23-37 people initially with hopes for more on the horizon. All the projects are set to be operational in the next five years.
‘‘We’ve focused on creating jobs for the region,’’ Campbell says. ‘‘This is a change from trying to get people into jobs. If the jobs are here people will come and the town will flourish.’’
Indirect jobs, from workplaces supporting the new influx, will be of great benefit for the likes of long-time resident Vicky Ayres.
She is taking courses to be an early childhood educator, and the growth of the town will lead to opportunities for her to work.
‘‘I love Kawerau,’’ she says. ‘‘It is such a nice place to live and, people say things about it but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.’’
Ayres hopes to purchase her rental home off the landlord and have it fixed up right and become her family homestead. ‘‘I think this place is really changing. I’m excited for the changes the town is part of.’’
Former Mongrel Mob member turned councillor Warwick Godfrey is a walking example of how things can change. Now dedicated to helping others, his old life is all-but left behind. The remnants of a Mongrel Mob tattoo on his forehead are barely visible now.
Warwick says employment will bring purpose back to Kawerau.
‘‘We need to get parents up in the morning heading to work,’’ he says. ‘‘The children will see that and learn from it. Right now the children are sometimes the only ones with a reason to get out of bed in the morning. The parents are asleep and have nothing to do.’’
Many of those children, despite their age, already see the potential for a stigma-free future.
‘‘I don’t think I’ll ever leave Kawerau,’’ one says. ‘‘I want to stay here. I grew up here and was born and raised.’’
The children are heading to one of the newest buildings in town, Tarawera High School. A multimillion dollar modern learning environment.
Featuring no walls between year groups, the school promotes inclusion and collaboration. Principal Helen Tuhoro says building the school had its challenges and there were residual issues that persisted, but the storm has well and truly been weathered.
‘‘There was a strong directive not to do things the way the old schools had,’’ Tuhoro says. ‘‘That included the curriculum and the drug issues.’’
When the intermediate school was to be closed
there were protests and calls of ‘‘save our school’’ which lasted into the first few years of the new high school, with hikoi calling on authorities to preserve the schools as they were. It was the first decile 1 school to have a modern learning environment. Tuhoro took over charge of a school that didn’t exist, and one the community was not happy about.
‘‘The first thing the parents wanted was a fence between high school and intermediate children as they were afraid of bullying,’’ Tuhoro says. ‘‘Within a month it was clear it was not needed.’’
‘‘When the school opened, the attitude towards the new-look facility was carried to school by the children. There were three or four fights each day.’’
The attitude was not the only thing that ended up coming to school with children: they also brought drugs. Tackling that issue was only possible via a zero-tolerance campaign.
‘‘We need to get parents up in the morning heading to work. The children will see that and learn from it.’’ Warwick Godfrey
‘‘There was to be no selling drugs or people affected by them at our school,’’ Tuhoro says.
‘‘You could see it at the fence lines. Often it wasn’t our children, it was older people but still around our site. If you were caught it was instant suspension. We had 22 suspensions and four exclusions in the first month of this policy. There was only a 56 per cent attendance rate.
‘‘There would be pages of suspensions and exclusions but now, five years on, we only have about five total for the year. Drug suspensions have dropped. Kids are wanting to come to school and it’s a safe place to be.
‘‘Zero tolerance of selling and bringing drugs to school is still there.’’
As the attitude towards drugs and other substances became clear, this was mirrored in children’s parents who also started setting standards of their own.
And on a smaller scale, the zero-tolerance policy
on addictive substances echoes the efforts of police. ‘‘Parents want their children to have better than what they had,’’ Tuhoro says.
‘‘Some are quite open that they don’t want them to follow in their footsteps and they have high aspirations. We are doing this together. The children are our future.
‘‘These kids have hearts of gold – all they want to do is do the right thing. At the end of the day they are the same as every other kid. They just come from Kawerau but are no different from any other kids. They have real hope in their eyes now.’’
The children see the change and they see the potential. It will be up to them to ultimately save the town and ensure the community spirit thrives when the new opportunities come into fruition.
In the short term though, their aspirations or their community could yet be more lofty.
‘‘What I think this town needs,’’ says one child, ‘‘is a KFC and a Gucci store.’’
‘‘Kids are wanting to come to school and it’s a safe place to be.’’ Principal Helen Tuhoro of Tarawera High School, below
Kawerau resident Vicky Ayres now has high hopes for the town. She is training to be an early childhood teacher and hopes there will be jobs.
Twice in recent months police have coordinated raids on houses and Mongrel Mob pads to target illicet drugs in Kawerau.
Sergeant Al Fenwick says the town is not going to be able to ‘‘arrest its way out of addiction’’.