Trou­ble at the mill town

‘What Kaw­erau needs,’ says one child, ‘is a KFC and a Gucci store’

Sunday Star-Times - - News -

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’’.

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