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Whangārei 'on a roll' as work starts on Hundertwasser centre

Business confidence may be on a slide in national surveys

Business confidence may be on a slide in national surveys - but it's heading in the other direction in Whangārei, according to those who should know.

 

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Darrell Trigg on the job at the Hundertwasser site. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

 

Unemployment's at its lowest level in a decade; cruise ships want to come to Northport and investors are courting the council for the right to build hotels and a new civic centre.

The catalyst for the flurry of optimism is the start of work for the Hundertwasser Art Centre, in Whangārei's Town Basin marine precinct. Local firm Trigg Construction scored the contract to oversee the building of the architectural artwork envisaged more than 20 years ago by the famed Austrian artist, Friedensreich Hundertwasser who died in 2000.

 

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Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

And the building site is now one of destruction - pending creation.

 

The old 1922 Harbour Board building Hundertwasser hoped to transform has to come down before his design can go up. The old office rooms are laid bare to the sky; beams hang askew and brick walls teeter on the edges held together by powdery mortar. "The building was totally unstable, by today's safety standards," Darrell Trigg said. "It would have needed massive internal bracing to meet earthquake regulations. And it could never have sustained the weight of the new structure." Work started on site in mid-June but it's been halted for the last couple of weeks while contractors remove asbestos discovered in the old building.

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A model of the Hundertwasser Art Centre Photo: Supplied

 

Darrell Trigg and other contractors involved in the $26m project travelled to Vienna this winter to meet the Hundertwasser Foundation and immerse themselves in the artists' philosophy, building techniques and body of work. "I can honestly say, if we hadn't done that, I don't think it would have worked as well," Mr Trigg said. "It's like no other building we've worked on. Hundertwasser rejected symmetry - and repetition. Everything has to be different, not replicated, just as you would find in nature, in a forest for instance."

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Work had to be halted for a couple of weeks to remove asbestos discovered in the old building. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

 

The late artist told this reporter in an interview in 1998 that buildings should be beautiful as well as functional. Ugliness in the built environment made people feel bad, and behave badly, he believed. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder - and many Whangārei beholders were unconvinced by his exotic design. There was even a certain amount of bad or at least grumpy behaviour in council meetings in the face of its proposed beauty. But in the end the money was raised and the objectors have gone quiet of late, apart from the odd eruption in Letters to the Editor.

 

Darrell Trigg estimates 500 people will have worked on the art centre before it's finished in 2021. Pile driving is set to start next month and should be well over by Christmas he promises. "We will be going down 50 metres to bedrock, so there will be a bit of shaking but the foundations have to be strong enough to meet the earthquake regs, and bear the weight of the grassed roof," he said.

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Barry Trass wants the Hundertwasser Art Centre "to be for Northland, by Northlanders". Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

 

On the other side of the river and across the road, canny business people are making plans to capitalise on what will be an extraordinary building. Barry Trass is the chair of Prosper Northland - the trust that raised funds for the Hundertwasser project. He and other Northland investors have just revealed plans for a $200m luxury hotel complex and conference centre across the water.

 

A major hotel chain was working with the group, he said though he could not say which one. "We want it to be for Northland, by Northanders, like the Hundertwasser," he said. "We want to keep all the work local if we can. To build the hotel and conference centre it's something like 200 jobs and then once the hotel's up and running something like 160 jobs, ongoing so it's pretty huge for our region."

 

Mr Trass said Whangārei has never had an attraction that would pull in conferences or cruise ships. But with the assurance that the Hundertwasser centre is happening - he said the first cruise ship is booked to arrive for the opening in 2021.

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Andrew Garratt is organising the volunteers who will recycle thousands of bricks and native timber for the Hundertwasser centre. Photo: RNZ / Lois Williams

 

The Northland Development Corporation investors including Mr Trass, are not the only ones now wanting to build in the city. Neal Group have also made a pitch to the council to build a new civic and conference centre, with council offices over the road from the Hundertwasser. Whangārei Mayor Sheryl Mai said after years in the economic doldrums, the city is now being courted by developers. "I think Whangārei's becoming hot property: we've been discovered. "People have seen the potential for developing in Northland and in Whangārei in particular," she said.

 

The regional development agency Northland Inc has backed the Hundertwasser project from the start, as the key to putting Whangārei on the map. But chief executive David Wilson said it's not the only thing putting heart into the region.

 

He said the landing of the new Hawaiiki data cable at Mangawhai; the cash infusion for forestry and other ventures from the Provincial Growth Fund and the influx of new residents from Auckland, are all creating buoyancy. Mr Wilson said business confidence may be down elsewhere but that is not what he is hearing in the north. "I'm hearing the opposite in terms of confidence. I think we've got a bit of a roll on. Employment is up; some of our local companies like Culhams are getting big contracts in Northland. "Those things don't happen overnight. This is about long term hard graft - and the regions are where a lot of the hard graft happens," Mr Wilson said.

 

The regional council's economist, Darryl Jones, said the latest job figures tend to bear that out. Northland's unemployment rate for the year to June was 5.7 percent: the lowest in a decade. "Historically Northland has had the highest unemployment rate," Mr Jones said. "But now it's lower than in the Gisborne Hawke's Bay and also lower than Wanganui Manawatū region." Barry Trass said Whangārei is a city and district that is at long last, coming of age. And he said those job figures will improve even further if the Riverside Hotel complex gets the green light.

 

Published by: RadioNZ
Author: Lois Williams, Northland Reporter
Original Article: https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/363610/whangarei-on-a-roll-as-work-starts-on-hundertwasser-centre

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