Celebrating the Truspower Award with Focus Paihia Trustees and Trustpower representatives.

Celebrating the Truspower Award with Focus Paihia Trustees and Trustpower representatives.

I’m incredibly proud of a community group that I helped instigate and the success they are having in changing the way the locals perceive their ‘back yard’.  It’s a fabulous demonstration of what happens when a bunch of passionate, creative and inspired people take charge of their destiny. 

Paihia, with a resident population of around 1,700 has received significant national recognition.  It was named the 2015 Mitre 10 Community of the Year (part of the New Zealander of the Year Awards) and within a month was also named 2014 Trustpower National Community Awards Supreme Winner.  A huge achievement.

So, what has made this community stand out?  And why is this important for other New Zealand communities?

Simply put – Paihia stopped waiting for someone else to fix their problems.  It took responsibility and put words into action.

Talking with the current Trustees of Focus Paihia Community Charitable Trust (FPCCT) they will tell you it’s all about having a common goal, building community spirit and getting your hands dirty.

FPCCT got underway in 2009, when a couple of people decided it was time to stop moaning about the state of the town and do something about it (yes, I was one of them).  The concept quickly gained local support and Focus Paihia was born.  The community developed their own vision of where they wanted to be within the first five months.  About a year later they launched the Paihia Masterplan, an aspirational future concept design for the village.

Not long after this, FPCCT was introduced to the concept of ‘placemaking’.  Project for Public Spaces describes this as a ‘quiet movement that reimagines public spaces as the heart of every community.  A transformative approach that inspires people to create and improve their public places’.

The Trust now had a vehicle for making things happen.  And things did happen, with great gusto and impressive outcomes.  The first project was the renovation over one weekend of an underused and unattractive public space next to the local i-Site.  With just $5k, provided by the local community board, the area was transformed by over 100 volunteers.

This first project provided impetus to move onto the next.  The ‘ugliest toilet in NZ’ has been renovated into a well photographed public commodity (for just $13.5k), a swimming pontoon has been launched, a mural painted, a village green over-hauled, public seating added, an Op Shop opened and the list goes on.  All achieved by volunteers, who were feed and watered by more volunteers – sometimes for months on end.

The biggest and most controversial project to date has been the removal of a well used public carpark.  From the word go, the community had clearly indicated that they wanted a people friendly waterfront. 

With very limited public space in the CBD, it was decided that the waterfront carpark had to go.  Not everyone was happy about it and the Trust ended up in Council fighting for the right to remove it.

The Trust had recognised that for things to really change within the village – both physically and in perception, something substantial had to happen.  If the community could pull it off, the transformation would showcase what can be achieved and encourage future proactive development.

Over 250 volunteers spent over 9,000 hours transforming this space.  Estimated to be worth around $1.3m commercially, the park was built for $180k.  With around 90% of the funding being provided by FPCCT, through their sustainable funding sources.

The outcome is more than anyone had hoped.  And many of those opposed have been won over by the success of the space and have got involved with other projects.

It was the creation the park that saw the Trust win the Trustpower Supreme Community Award.  And it has forever changed the way this community looks and feels.  Once a departure point, Paihia now has a heart and is a destination in its own right.  The park, on the waters edge, now provides a place for people to meet, mix, mingle, sit back and relax.

The common theme however, is that the villages transformation is a by-product of what happens when a community unites and works together for the greater good.  It is fair to say that for many years Paihia was seen as disconnected, with polar opinions and no clarity about who it was.  Once described as a good example of a town with no planning, it was a mixed jigsaw, with a tired look and feel.

Today there is a buzz in the air.  A feeling of hope and optimism.  The creation of the projects has created a strong sense of community pride and comradery.  Lasting friendships have been formed, alliances achieved and credibility built. 

In a time when many people feel disconnected from their community – Paihia is developing a roadmap that combines community aspiration with community spirit – something that we could probably all do with a little more of.