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Growth towns in NZ: How Ōtaki is coming into its own

Surfers at Ōtaki Beach.

Ōtaki used to be the unfashionable end of Kāpiti, but the town is blossoming as city escapees, home-based business people and families move in. A recent “blow-in”, Sharon Stephenson takes stock of her new home town.

Ōtaki begins somewhere near a narrow, two-lane bridge, in the shadow of a giant concrete plant that spits out rivers of grey. It ends north of the main roundabout, on alluvial plains so flat it’s as though a plasterer has skimmed the earth.

“If you were writing Ōtaki’s dating profile, you’d probably describe it as ‘experienced’,” says Jim, battling a southerly to walk his dog on Ōtaki Beach. “It’s been around the block a few times and has the stretch marks to prove it. It’s not exactly pretty, but it is strangely seductive.”

So seductive, in fact, that five months ago, we gave up our home in inner-city Wellington to move to a 6ha lifestyle block in the shadow of the Tararua Range. We’d always wanted to live with more grass than asphalt, to grow our own food far from noisy neighbours. If you can work from home, we reasoned, why not do so somewhere warmer and nicer, under big skies where the only sound is the wind tickling the kauri trees?

To be honest, we weren’t aiming for Ōtaki; our focus was Te Hōro, the well-heeled settlement down the road. But, like so many, we were drawn to Ōtaki’s cheaper prices and decent amenities: two supermarkets, a train station, a well-stocked library and a doctor’s surgery where I pay $18.50 a visit (as opposed to the $55 I used to pay in Wellington). It might be the unfashionable end of Kāpiti, but everyone I smile at here not only smiles back, they also stop and chat.

We’re not the only “blow-ins” (as locals sometimes call newcomers). Real Estate Institute NZ figures show more than 241 Ōtaki houses sold in the past year, with anecdotal evidence suggesting many were to non-locals. Derek Kelly, from First National Ōtaki, estimates of the 250 properties he’s sold in the past three years, 75% have been to out-of-towners. “Most buyers come from elsewhere in Kāpiti, but around 10% are from Wellington and 5% from Auckland,” says Kelly. “Most buy to live here, but probably 15% are investors.”

When the average house price is $435,000, which gets you a decent three-bedroom place on a flat section, probably within cooee of the shops and beach, why wouldn’t you buy here? Prices, though, are on the rise: in 2016, that same house would have cost you $250,000, and $20,000 less two years before that. 

Mostly, the increase is attributed to the great migration north: as median house prices in Wellington hit in excess of $650,000, the far reaches of the Kāpiti Coast become more attractive – to capital commuters, families and retirees. It doesn’t hurt that the four-lane Peka Peka to Ōtaki Expressway, the $330 million stretch of bitumen that next year will link up with Transmission Gully and the newish Kāpiti Expressway, should shave a good 20 minutes off the current one-hour commute to Wellington.

There have been rumblings from retailers unhappy that the expressway will bypass Ōtaki, but it’s hard to find anyone who won’t welcome reduced traffic congestion along the coast.

Ian and Debbi Carson met in French class at Ōtaki College, spent decades away in  Wellington, London and Sydney, and returned to their hometown nine years ago. Ian is  founding editor of local newspaper Ōtaki Today.

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Ian Carson, editor and founder of Ōtaki Today, one of two monthly newspapers that serve this community of 7000. “The expressway will open Ōtaki up to so much possibility. There’s a lot of commercial land still available here, room for new businesses and for families to buy a reasonably priced house with fruit trees in the backyard and good schools nearby.”

Carson, 62, is excited by a possible influx. “New people bring new ideas and expectations. They demand decent coffee, good shopping and things to do, so the town has to step up,” he says, counting off the number of new cafes while his wife Debbi, 61, talks about a local developer planning to open a food truck venue. 

“Change is good, but we just have to manage it so that long-time families don’t get priced out the market and have to move.”

Ian and Debbi know the town better than most: they met in French class at Ōtaki College. “Back then, we couldn’t wait to get out of the place,” says Debbi, who can trace her ancestry back to James Cootes, one of the area’s first whalers.

They moved to Wellington, then London and Sydney. Life was kind, with Ian working as a journalist, including 13 years at the Evening Post, and eventually opening his own content management business. In 1988, the couple started New Zealand’s first Montessori primary school in Naenae. But nine years ago, they returned to their hometown.

“We can work from anywhere and my mother couldn’t sell her house, so we bought it to make it easier for her,” says Ian. A year later, their son Jared, a children’s book author, bought the house next door for $145,000 (their daughter and her two children also live nearby).

Ōtaki the second time around is much sweeter. “I believe if you have the skills to contribute to the local community, then you should,” says Ian. “It’s why I started the Ōtaki Promotions Group that runs events such as the Kite Festival, which has just had its seventh year and is one of the biggest events on the coast.” He’s also a rugby referee and launched Ōtaki Today last September to “tell the stories that weren’t being told”.

“We went from an idea to 6000 printed copies in six months,” he says proudly. “That’s the thing about a small town – you can easily get things done.”

Long-time Ōtaki resident Anne Thorpe: “People who come to Ōtaki with enthusiasm and drive and get involved in the community are valuable to us. As long as they don’t tell their friends, because then everyone will move here!”
Anne Thorpe is lamenting the fact she can no longer buy a reel of cotton in Ōtaki’s Main St. “I can, however, buy lots of takeaways,” says the 79-year-old, who moved to Ōtaki in 1954 with her father’s engineering job. “Back then, Ōtaki was a hick town and I hated it. I got a job at the BNZ, but desperately wanted to go back to Wellington.”

When love intervened – in the form of market gardener Peter Thorpe – she made peace with his birthplace. There were three children and a foster son (all of whom now live in the region), as well as a converted 13-hectare dairy farm where she and her late husband grew 25,000 beefsteak tomatoes a year.

“The 70s to 90s were prosperous times. Ōtaki was a great place to bring up kids, and with Peter hunting and fishing, we largely lived off the land.”

Thorpe nurtures a strong social justice streak: for years, she volunteered at Birthright, Prisoners’ Aid and the Historical Society; she was a JP and marriage celebrant. She set up the local Citizens Advice Bureau and eventually Ōtaki Museum, and was rewarded with an Order of Merit for her troubles.

Later came a social work qualification and job as a probation officer. Thorpe admits Ōtaki had its problems (“I’d be teaching kids the road code and they’d be robbing my house”), but she worked hard to turn troubled teens around. “I was in a cafe recently and a guy came up to me and said, ‘You were my probation officer and you really believed in me,’ which was lovely to hear.”

Ōtaki’s changing nature largely gets a tick from Thorpe (“although it breaks my heart when they tear down old buildings”), with Te Wānanga o Raukawa (Māori tertiary education provider) and the Māoriland Film Festival marked out for special praise for raising the town’s profile, reviving te reo and increasing the workforce.

“People who come to Ōtaki with enthusiasm and drive and get involved in the community are valuable to us. As long as they don’t tell their friends, because then everyone will move here!”

Derek Kelly and Hanna Isaac with children, August and Pearl.
Derek Kelly is casting around for a word he can’t quite find. “Energy, that’s it!” he finally exclaims, a slight Australian twang still clinging to his vowels.

Kelly is describing the town he, wife Hanna Isaac and their two children moved to three years ago. “Ōtaki is starting to blossom, there’s a real buzz in the air.” He's an estate agent paid to cheerlead for Ōtaki; you’d expect him to say that. But Kelly is genuine in his praise. “We’ve had some dark times in our lives, but as soon as we moved to Ōtaki, it was as though the sun started shining on us.”

Kelly is referring not only to the 1902 villa that sprawls across their 8000sqm section, which they bought in 2015, but also the job he was offered by the estate agent who sold them their house. “After 20 years of being an early childhood teacher, I was ready for a change. I haven’t looked back and am about to buy into the [real estate] partnership.”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

The couple had been living in Byron Bay for 16 years when they decided to return to Isaac’s native New Zealand. “We thought we’d try Auckland for a year but didn’t like it. We couldn’t afford to buy a house there and we really wanted space and a laidback lifestyle for the kids [August, seven, and Pearl, five].”

They knew no one in Ōtaki and had no connection to the town; the closest they’d come was nearby Te Hōro, when they were married on the apple orchard of friend and former arts administrator Carla van Zon.

But Isaac spotted the villa online, which they paid $735,000 for (it’s now valued at $1 million). Her parents, who bought it with them, converted the adjacent former stables into a home where they now live. Another shed was turned into a studio for Isaac, an illustrator/tattoo artist.

Sydney-born Kelly likens his adopted town to Australia in the 70s. “But in a good way! It’s relaxed and friendly and has some of the best schools I’ve seen in my teaching career. We’re also proud to live somewhere that has such a fantastic cultural dynamic, unlike Australia, which treats its indigenous population appallingly.”

Both his children are learning te reo and Kelly admits to being reduced to tears at school concerts by cultural traditions. Despite the expressway affecting them personally, he’s in favour of it. “It will be noisier, but I grew up in Sydney so I’m used to noise. It doesn’t bother us and is going to be great for attracting people and businesses to Ōtaki.”

Libby Hakaraia and Tainui Stephens at the Māoriland Hub, which hosts film screenings, exhibitions and performances.
The sunny part of the “Sunny Ōtaki” tag-line is missing the day I splash through puddles to meet Libby Hakaraia and Tainui Stephens. The filmmaking couple is the force behind the Māoriland Charitable Trust, which, along with providing employment and educational opportunities for residents, offers a platform for Māori and indigenous film-makers from around the world. Its centrepiece is the annual Māoriland Film Festival (MFF), a week of indigenous films from as far afield as Greenland and Iran. It’s been running for six years and is the Kāpiti Coast’s largest public event, contributing more than $800,000 to the local economy.

In 2017, the couple bought a former department store on Main St, converting it into the Māoriland Hub, which hosts film screenings, exhibitions and performances. Out back, there’s a community garden where workshops on growing food and waste minimisation are held. It’s a remarkable achievement for the husband-and-wife team, who started work on MFF in 2014. “We built it from the ground up with few resources,” says Stephens. “For the first four years, we were pretty much volunteers, working on it full time and making very little money.” 

Hakaraia, 50, was born in Lower Hutt but spent weekends and holidays with her father’s whānau in Ōtaki. After training as a journalist and working in Auckland, Sydney and Amsterdam, she returned. “I have a huge amount of energy for our community and always wanted to live on our land, near the beach, in a place that’s special to me. But my mates in Auckland and overseas thought I was mad coming here.”

“Now they’re jealous,” laughs Stephens, whose production credits include TVNZ series Marae and Waka Huia, as well as the feature film River Queen.

The issue for the pair was how to continue working in the media away from the main centres. “I did all the stuff we now know as a gig economy,” says Hakaraia, whose daughter Ōriwa is 15. “I was a stringer for the ABC, had a show on National Radio and was producing documentaries, while Tainui made films and assessed scripts for NZ on Air. But we made a commitment to live here so we had to generate our own work.”

It’s a similar story with Hakaraia’s sister, a sound engineer who relocated from Germany to Ōtaki but still works all over New Zealand and the world. “Ōtaki is our base, where we get our energy and inspiration from, but we’re still able to travel and be part of the global community.”

Ōtaki’s flashest building, Te Wānanga o Raukawa, is New Zealand’s first Māori tertiary educational provider. It opened on this windswept site in 1981, a huddle of prefabs trucked in from elsewhere.
Drive to the end of Main St, before it drifts towards the beach, and on the right is Ōtaki’s flashest building: Te Wānanga o Raukawa, New Zealand’s first Māori tertiary educational provider. It opened on this windswept site in 1981, a huddle of prefabs trucked in from elsewhere.

The prefabs are still there (CEO Mereana Selby’s office, for example, started life as a Lower Hutt nursing home), but they’ve since been joined by a state-of-the-art fitness/health centre and a $10 million library/auditorium they’ve only just taken the bubble wrap off.

The wānanga is Ōtaki’s largest employer (around 200 at last count) and, Selby believes, the second largest on the Kāpiti Coast. In 2017, around 3385 part- and full-time students from across New Zealand were enrolled in both residential and online degrees as diverse as environmental science, te reo and teaching.

“It’s hard to overestimate how much value the wānanga has added to Ōtaki, from providing surety of employment to revitalising the language,” says Selby, who segued from a teaching position to the CEO role in 2007. “In the mid-70s, no one under the age of 30 could speak te reo in Ōtaki, but now more than half the town’s Māori population can speak it. You go to the supermarket and you hear kids conversing with their parents, which is wonderful.”

Selby, who trained as a teacher in Christchurch before moving to Ōtaki in 1990, is also proud of the difference her organisation is making to people’s lives. “The average age of students is 39, and 75% are women who often have to overcome huge struggles to get here. But they want to break the cycle and educate themselves.”

It’s often the same for staff, who are encouraged to study themselves. “One of our department heads started here in security and now has a masters degree. Education, and particularly the wānanga, has been huge for Ōtaki and it’s only going to get better.”


Fast facts on Ōtaki

Ōtaki is the northernmost of the three main townships on the Kāpiti Coast, sandwiched between Ōtaki Beach to the west and the current SH1 route to the east.

Around 53,200 people make Kāpiti Coast their home and Ōtaki’s share of that is around 12%, with a population density of 3.27 people per hectare – so there’s plenty of space to grow. Like the rest of the coast, it’s seen average increases of around 6% between Censuses.

Population: Around 7000.

Distance/time from: Wellington CBD 73.8km, just over 1 hour by car or train; Kāpiti Coast Airport 23.1km, 20 mins by car; Wellington Airport 81.9km, 1 hour 10 mins by car; Waikanae 18km, 15 mins; Paraparaumu 23km, 19 mins; Paekākāriki 33km, 25 mins.

Air connection: Air Chathams flies direct from Auckland to Kāpiti Coast Airport in Paraparaumu. Sounds Air also connects direct between Blenheim and Nelson and the Coast.

Train connection: Daily Capital Connection commuter train to Wellington.

Median home value: $528,000 for Kāpiti Coast.

Median weekly rent: $220 ($280 for the coast, 2013).

Education: Three local primaries and Ōtaki College. Te Wānanga o Raukawa has its main campus in Ōtaki offering qualifications with a distinct Māori focus.

Medical services: A medical centre with GPs, and hospitals in Porirua, as well as in Hutt Valley and Wellington.

Broadband: Ōtaki got super-fast fibre in 2018.

Climate: Tucked into the foothills of the Tararua Range, Ōtaki can be wet like much of the coast, with around 1070mm of rain a year. Warm and temperate, the town dubs itself “Sunny Ōtaki”.

A view of Ōtaki.

Local economy: Residential, commercial and industrial township with a strong shopping outlet presence on SH1 to the east of the village. Surrounding rural land is used largely for market gardening, dairy farming, sheep grazing and poultry farming. Proximity to Wellington and a commuter train connection add to the community’s mix of lifestylers and entry-level house buyers working in Wellington. 

GDP/annual economic growth for Kāpiti Coast as a whole was estimated at 2.9% at September 2018 by Infometrics. Increases in house sales (2%) and prices (4%) top the national averages.

Environment: Waterways are important in Kāpiti and quality is generally good. However, there is close monitoring by the community of perceived pollution from urban areas and industrial activity.

Recreation: The Ōtaki River and Ōtaki Forks recreation area offer excellent walking, camping and tramping. Other waterways, beaches and parks are close to town. The Ōtaki-Māori Racing Club, which started in 1886, is the only Māori racing club in New Zealand, and one of a few truly indigenous horse racing clubs in the world.

Annual events: Māoriland Film Festival, a global indigenous film festival, March; Ōtaki Kite Festival, February; Festival of Pots and Garden Art, January; Kāpiti Arts Trail, November.

This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.

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