Wellington Mayor Justin Lester knows first-hand what it’s like to run a startup in the capital because, in his mid-20s, he co-founded local food business Kapai.
The values behind this enterprise mirror his own as mayor. It’s sustainably operated, encourages entrepreneurship and gives back to the local economy and community.
You could say Lester is the closest thing New Zealand has to Justin Trudeau; a smiling, youthful, progressive poster boy for socially, environmentally and technologically-minded politics.
Lester is also a big supporter of the arts (he donated his $60,000 car allowance to the city’s arts budget), and much of his campaign focused on innovation around affordable housing and kick-starting the economy.
Wellington’s economy has changed markedly in recent decades with the departure of multinational HQs and the tightening of government spending under the National-led government. The government sector remains important to the capital but according to Labour MP Annette King, Lester is the right person to shake off the city’s “lethargy”. And Lester himself is confident Wellingtonians are getting their swagger back.
Show me the money
“Wellington is the most compact, cosmopolitan city we’ve got in New Zealand. We have a unique lifestyle and people love living here.”
A former city councillor and deputy mayor, Lester says he wants Wellington to offer something different to the rest of the country through a thriving digital economy.
Already the city has the highest average incomes and most educated population in New Zealand. This has led to an environment where locally-grown businesses are proliferating and doing incredibly well. Lester says the council continues to back local ventures through programmes such as startup incubator Collider.
“We’re aiming to incubate and support the next generation of entrepreneurs who want to grow startups from here. We want to make sure people have access to mentoring, where they can talk to other individuals in a similar sort of space and have the opportunity to partner and grow their ideas in that way.”
To make it easier for businesses to base themselves in Wellington. Lester says the council will improve its consenting process with the aim of creating a one-stop shop for applications.
“If you need a consent because you’re starting up a new business or you’re trying to do something with a piece of land, we’ll make it easy and not put unnecessary barriers in the way.”
He’s already removed the charge for businesses hosting outdoor dining and there are more incentives lined up. Wellington’s tourism market is booming and Lester sees the new $150 million Movie Museum and Convention Centre, designed by Wellington firm Studio Pacific Architecture, as another major drawcard. And, in a very tangible example of the council appreciating good design, it agreed to spend an extra $15 million to create a building that draws inspiration from the capital’s position as the head of Maui's fish.
“I think the movie museum in itself will be the single largest man-made tourist attraction in New Zealand and I think it will be a big driver of growth.”
To accommodate physical growth, and to make sure the next generation of capital dwellers can afford to get into their own home, Lester has pledged to increase housing stock.
“We want to build more houses in a sustainable fashion. We don’t want to have a similar problem to Auckland where you’ve got million dollar, and now some two million dollar, suburbs.”
The city is also focused on introducing more sustainable and efficient transport options. Electric car-sharing service Mevo launched in Wellington in December and plans to add 50 A3 Sportback e-trons across 64 chargingstations in the next 12 months. Studies have shown that 30 vehicles can be taken off the road for every share car on offer. Lester says the council is prioritising 100 car parks for electric vehicle chargers and car sharing.
“Wellington has the lowest carbon emissions per capita in Australasia…We want to encourage more sustainable transport and further establish our leadership in this area.”
Another major focus for the council is creating a smarter city. Data collection is not renowned as a strength of councils but that’s not the case in Wellington where the council has worked closely with Japanese tech company NEC in a pilot programme – partially due to the wealth of technology talent on offer.
After a successful 'Living Lab' field test in Cuba Mall, where cameras that could detect “screaming, smell paint fumes from graffiti, and sense people in groups who might end up in fights” were set up, 3D cameras and wi-fi sensors were deployed to collect anonymous data to track the level and type of foot and vehicle traffic and, eventually, measure air and water quality.
So what about that old chestnut from former PM John Key when he said Wellington was a dying city?
“That was a long time ago,” Lester says. “Wellington’s economy is flying right now. We have the strongest financial platform of any local government entity in the entire country. In fact, we’ve got an even stronger financial platform than central government … In terms of the economy, we’ve had 2.8 percent growth. We’re in a much better financial position.”
That growth came in spite of the Kaikoura earthquake that rattled the city in November, something Lester says businesses dealt with incredibly well.
Making sure buildings throughout the capital are resilient in case of another quake is a major priority, he says. And while he will continue to focus on roads, rates and rubbish, he has bigger, more progressive goals in his sights and is doing everything in his power to ensure Wellington continues to develop and profit from its unique combination of culture, commerce and conscience.