By Laura Baker
Ever considered opening up shop in Timaru, or maybe even moving there? It’s just a hop, skip and a jump from Christchurch and Timaru Mayor Damon Odey will personally roll out the red carpet himself.
It’s an easy two hour drive to reach the seaside town in the heart of South Canterbury. So what has it got to offer you and your business?
It has a big city feel in a small friendly community, comparable wages to other districts, affordable homes, a bustling port and Caroline Bay, which has been voted in the top ten beaches in New Zealand. “The lifestyle opportunities are really underrated – people just don’t understand how great it is,” Damon says.
Damon was more than happy to talk me through why he reckons his beautiful city ought to have a second look in, despite some of the speed bumps it has been up against.
Who is Damon Odey?
While the folk in Timaru know their mayor by name, there’s a good chance if you are from outside of the region, you aren’t familiar with Damon and the work he is doing.
Born in Timaru Damon is a South Canterbury boy through and through. He grew up on a lifestyle block at Pleasant Point and went to a small rural school in the area.
But he didn’t grow up with aspirations to be mayor. He started off as a boat builder in his early days and enjoyed a stint in the UK, before coming back home to get into business with his old man. Damon and his father owned Parr & Co Engineering, the pair purchasing the company in 2002 and Damon becoming managing director.
“During my business career I decided I needed to do a bit of upskilling around human resources and management, so I headed off to Aoraki Polytechnic in the early 2000s. There’s nothing quite like going back to school after more than 20 years of being out of the classroom.”
So, what inspired this hard working family man to run for Timaru mayor? It all came down to timing Damon explains. “I’d done one term as a Timaru councillor and the mayor at the time, Janie Annear, was coming to the end of her third term as mayor and decided she would stand down.
“It was all about timing and opportunity, and sometimes you can’t choose either. While I was relatively busy on a few fronts I was committed to doing my bit for the district. So I put my hat in the ring for the Timaru mayorship.”
Damon won the 2013 election and jokes he got the upper hand due to his “outstanding good looks,” but to be fair there were only two in the race he says. Plus he reckons being a local lad born and bred in Timaru helped win over public support. “I’ve done a bit of work in the community over the years through my business, as well as working in the not for profit sector with our community foundations. I am in a small village so people knew who I was which probably helped.”
Now, two years into the job he says everyday is a challenge. The short three year term means he is trying to assess and deliver as much as he can for the community in the fleeting time allotted. At the next election in October 2016 he’ll be at the hands of the community, but for now he is making his time count. “I’m biting off as much as I can and then chewing it as fast as I can.”
There is no denying it, Damon is extremely proud of his town. And while, yes, he may be biased in his views towards the place he calls home, he also raises a persuasive argument as to why Timaru is one of the best towns in New Zealand.
“There are a number of positive aspects to life in Timaru, in fact it’s probably one of the best kept secrets in the country,” Damon says. The district’s GDP outstrips the country’s GDP by more than one percent, the median house price is less than a third of Auckland’s, incomes are comparable to the big cities and with Mount Cook in its backyard and picturesque rivers and lakes nearby, the work and lifestyle environment is enviable. But just like any other town Timaru has its fair share of challenges.
Public enemy number one
One of the biggest threats to the South Canterbury town is people – or lack thereof;simply not having enough skilled people in the district to keep up with growth and fill job vacancies.
“So for me my biggest focus is on retaining youth in our district. A lot of our youth think they have to go to the big cities to study or to find work and they don’t actually realise the vocational career pathways in our district that can lead onto employment opportunities.”
He says his biggest challenge, but also his greatest contribution to Timaru, is retaining the youth population. While a fair percentage will head to universities out of town, he wants to ensure that the ones who live in the district understand the unique possibilities available.
Through working with high school principals, Aoraki Polytechnic and industry sectors, Damon is creating a link and a dialogue between the industry and education providers. “It’s important we understand which industries need workers and how many so we can train appropriately and meet the demand.
“Then we can work together as a whole community to retain these kids and start a vocational career pathway. We can wrap the right support and training around them at a school level, so when they leave school they’ve the right skills that make them highly employable and a valuable asset.”
An aging population
Out of the 10 greater Canterbury regions, Timaru had the lowest population increase between 2006 and 2013. So what effect has this stunted growth had on the region? Damon says it is having an impact on the demand for labour.
Last year the council conducted a survey of its 30 largest employers in the public and private sectors. “We asked the question ‘what is the biggest threat to your business?’ the answer was the labour poll.”
While the working population is inadequate, Timaru’s elderly population is one of the largest in the country per capita. “Our biggest forecast for growth is in the 65 to 75 age bracket.”
That’s great he says when you’ve got 13 golf courses, bowling clubs, a fantastic aquatic centre and a beach because Timaru is a brilliant place to retire. “But the aging population makes it even clearer how important it is to keep as many youth in our district as possible and attract more to come and work and live here.”
Turning the tide
The tide is beginning to turn as Damon’s actions take effect. Timaru is now seeing some positive migration coming from Christchurch. A lot of young families are realising it is a challenge to own a house in Christchurch’s ever changing landscape, Damon says.
“We’ve got to remember South Canterbury is part of Canterbury. People can still be connected to their families, while entering the property market and earning the same income.” As a result of its lifestyle advantages, young couples who left are starting to return home.
“We need to get the message through to the young 25 to 40 year olds that we want them. We need to get the message across that it is a good decision to move to our district because it’s a great place to live.”
Regenerating the CBD
Damon is working to bring life and vitally to Timaru, but he has got a hard battle ahead. The by-product of eight slow years of population growth is a number of vacant buildings in the inner city. So what is the council doing to bring new tenants and life back to these buildings?
He says it is hard for the council to effect change if the building owner is meeting all the legal requirements. But one area the council can play a role in getting the buildings up to spec, is being the expert on the new earthquake legislation, which is going through parliament at the moment.
“We want to show building owners that to meet the new building code isn’t going to be as scary as they think. We play a really important role in educating those people.”
There have been some signals there are going to be changes made to the Buildings Act. These changes are expected to make it easier and more viable to create inner city living above commercial space. “I see this as an opportunity for us to get some of the older buildings back up to code and bring some vitality back into our CBD, with apartment style living to really get the area cranking.”
Rolling out the red carpet
The biggest economic driver in Timaru is the diverse primary sector.
Unlike other small towns, Timaru doesn’t specialise in the production of one particular product, but a broad range. It has three diary factories, two meat factories, Mount Cook Salmon, a McCain factory, the seaport which hosts Talleys and Sanford plus a carrot factory that supplies juice to the Japanese market.
The primary industry is a major driver for the community and coupled with that is the secondary industries, which are either supporting the primary sector, or specialising in value added products. “So we actually pump quite a lot of product out of our district.”
And while the primary sector is booming, Damon says there is always room for more businesses. “We are very focused on rolling out the red carpet, not the red tape, for new businesses entering the Timaru economy. We need to make sure that any business opportunities are capitalised on and the council is there to support people.”
“We’d also link businesses in with our Economic Development Agency and the Chamber of Commerce. Collectively as a district we would be able to provide all of the information you need on zoning opportunities, land and more.”
If a better lifestyle and work environment interests you, Damon says feel free to give him a call.
“I’m happy to sit down and have a chat with any business owner interested in moving to Timaru.”
So take a drive to Timaru and check out why this underrated town has so much more to offer than first meets the eye.