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Growth towns in NZ: How Motueka emerged from Nelson's shadow

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

Motueka used to be a regional backwater, the kind of place people couldn’t wait to get out of. But as Mike White discovers, it’s now thriving, and turning the tables on nearby Nelson.

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.

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

Johny O’Donnell runs a successful digital consulting business from Motueka: “I don’t come across anyone who doesn’t envy the idea of living somewhere like here.”

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-year-old 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.”

New streets and subdivisions have been laid out on Motueka’s edges to cope with its rising population and the demand for housing.
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 co-ordinates a business group; Lisa who does web design; Steph who sells reusable cups; and Terri who plans weddings and runs a luxury lodge. There’s an online marketer, an engineering consultant, and a clairvoyant.

In creating the space, Ord has also created a small community of people who’ve been able to stay in Motueka and operate their businesses, and who’ve become great friends. “We work hard but we have lots of fun. Once the sun’s out, it’ll be Peronis on Fridays.”

Ord used to live in Auckland and still has family there, and visits them a few times a year. “But three nights is enough. I do a bar crawl down Ponsonby Rd and have tapas all the way down. I go shopping and see my friends – then I’m on the plane home.”
Dave Moloney in Motueka’s main street.
It used to be Motueka was frantic in summer as holidaymakers passed through on their way to Kaiteriteri, Abel Tasman and Golden Bay, then in winter locals would work on their golf handicap. But as national tourist numbers have risen, Motueka’s busy period has expanded and the shoulder seasons have almost merged. Along with tourism, there’s the fruit industry (apples, kiwifruit), vineyards, hops, one of the country’s biggest aviation colleges for pilot training, and a large Talley’s fish factory. All this has helped support an expanding retail sector, which has pretty much everything residents need.

It was into this mix Mike Fitzgerald and wife Shirley McGuire arrived in January 2016 to set up their health-food shop. They’d owned a similar store in Kaikohe for 13 years, but were looking for somewhere new, and Fitzgerald had already scouted Auckland, New Plymouth and Thames by the time he spotted an empty shop in Motueka. “I just had a good feeling about it,” he recalls. “I rang Shirley and said, ‘You have to come down and have a look.’ I haven’t for one second regretted the move...”

Also moving with them were Fitzgerald’s daughter Nikki and her two children, who’d been living in Auckland but wanted a more relaxed lifestyle.

Fitzgerald’s good feeling about the town was immediately reinforced when, not long after they’d opened, he and Shirley went away and Nikki forgot to lock the shop. “So one of the guys noticed the door was open and stood there for two hours to make sure nobody took anything, until someone contacted us. And I thought, wow, how many towns would that happen in?”

Business has continued to grow, and a builder has just called round to organise putting in more shelving.
McGuire says even in the time they’ve been there, Motueka has grown rapidly. “Just about every week we’ll get somebody coming in saying, ‘I’ve just moved here,’ and I think, how many people have moved here that I don’t know about?”

The area’s natural beauty, as well as the proximity to excellent biking, kayaking and hiking, make it attractive to many people who want a great lifestyle without being far from a city – with many people living in Motueka but working in Nelson. “On our way to work, we can decide whether we want to have a mountain view or a sea view, and it’s just lovely,” says McGuire.
Health food shop owners Shirley McGuire (left) and husband Mike Fitzgerald, with Mike’s daughter Nikki.
The pavements along Rore St on Motueka’s western edge are lined with tradesmen’s vans. The sections are full of construction materials and the street-fronts pocked with real estate signs. There’s banging and digging and drilling, the sounds of a new subdivision, as Motueka struggles to keep up with a population predicted to grow 11% over the next decade. Behind Rore St are more roads being laid out, footpath concrete still wet.

On the other side of town, where the inlet empties into Tasman Bay, gulls swirl and squawk and shags dive by the public wharf. Craig Sheriff comes down here with his two daughters in the evenings to fish, and can guarantee to catch enough mullet for a feed. For several months each summer, you can hook kingfish here, he says, as they chase the baitfish hanging around the fish factory’s overflow. But this morning he’s dropping off a couch to his mother-in-law across the inlet, where she runs a B&B.

Sheriff lived in Bali for 16 years, where he and wife Kelly ran a B&B and Sheriff guided surfers. But two years ago, they relocated to Motueka and bought the Happy Apple Backpackers.

Kelly’s mother escaped earthquake-fractured Christchurch for Motueka, and though Sheriff had never imagined living somewhere like Motueka, it offered everything they were after. “This place is amazing, especially for the kids. The weather here is fantastic – I mean, look at today,” he says, arching his neck and letting the sun flood his face.

They mountain-bike, take the dogs and hunt rabbits and possums, go swimming and fishing. There are three national parks within easy driving distance, and a skifield 90 minutes away. “We go out and do things. For me, it’s about the things you do, not the things you have. And everything’s really, really close. The only thing it lacks is waves. It’s really difficult being a surfie in Motueka.”

But Sheriff swears he’s not looking back, and gets his surfing fix in Nelson during a storm, or over on the West Coast, and had just got back from a couple of weeks in Indonesia. He reckons he has the perfect lifestyle. He looks at his watch and eyes the tide, working out when the best fishing will be. Not too long now till he can drop a line into the current, gaze up to the mountains and out to sea, a dad and his daughters making their own fun, somewhere in between.

Locals try their luck fishing from Motueka's public wharf.

Fast Facts on Motueka

Distance from: Nelson 46km, 40 minutes; Nelson Airport 41km, 35 minutes; Richmond 33km, 25 minutes; Kaiteriteri 16km, 20 minutes; Mārahau (Abel Tasman National Park) 19km, 25 minutes.

Population: 7593 (2013 census), projected to increase 11% between 2018 and 2028.

Median home value: $522,900

Median weekly rent: $350

Average annual rates: $3053

Medical facilities: Two GP practices, two dental surgeries and four pharmacies in Motueka. Nelson Hospital is just over 30 minutes away.

Schools: Five primary schools and one secondary school.

Climate: Motueka has one of the sunniest climates in New Zealand with an average of more than 2400 hours of sunshine every year. In 2017, the wider Nelson region topped the sunshine stakes with 2633 hours. Average annual rainfall is around 1200mm.

Broadband: High-speed fibre is available in some parts of Motueka, with the full rollout due by mid-2019.

Water/environment: About two-thirds of Motueka residences – around 2000 – have private bores, with the rest on town supply, making it the largest town in New Zealand that is not fully reticulated. There are plans to construct a new water treatment plant and upgrade other facilities for those properties on town supply.

Recreation: Motueka is within easy driving distance of Abel Tasman, Kahurangi and Nelson Lakes National Parks. There are extensive walking and cycling tracks in the area. As well as a swimming pool at the high school, there are saltwater baths on the foreshore. The town also has tennis courts, playing fields, a recreation centre, a bowling green, a golf course, and is expanding its library.

Resilience/future-proofing: There is a risk of coastal erosion along the sandspit, and seawater inundation of low-lying areas in the east of town; reports suggest such an event is likely to occur within 100 years. There are also risks of freshwater inundation from large flooding events in the Motueka River.

This article was originally published in the December issue of North & South.