Wellington's ailing, but what's the solution?

Shaken by earthquakes. Abandoned by multinationals. Gutted by government. Is Wellington really dying, as Prime Minister John Key suggested? Vincent Heeringa looks for life and finds it in the intersection of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place

Shaken by earthquakes. Abandoned by multinationals. Gutted by government. Is Wellington really dying, as Prime Minister John Key suggested? Vincent Heeringa looks for life and finds it in the intersection of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place.

Timing is everything. A week before I arrived, Wellington was lashed by a bitter southerly that blew children off playgrounds and washed away parts of the Hutt Valley railway. A week later parapets were falling onto Featherstone Street thanks to a series of mean little earthquakes. But the week I was in the capital, it was glorious – all blue skies, sunny days and frosty nights. And not a breath of that fabled wind.

Wellington on a good day is unbeatable, they say.

But the days aren’t good that often – and fewer people are saying it. The big numbers for Wellington look sick. On every major measure – population, GDP, employment – Wellington is on the wrong side of the ledger compared to the national average. And it’s way behind Auckland. And Christchurch. Heck, even Dunedin has better economic figures.

Read more - As goes Dunedin, so goes New Zealand

What’s worse, the boom days of a Labour-fuelled bureaucracy are over. From 2001 to 2009 public service jobs swelled by 40 percent. Now, after two terms of English-Joyce austerity the Wellington bureaucracy sits at just 17,568.

wellington economic statistics

“Wellington is dying, and we don’t know how to fix it,” Prime Minister John Key told a business audience in Takapuna recently.

Howls of protest from the usual array of professional complainers forced Key to apologise. “My comments were extreme,” he grovelled.

But here’s the thing. A few days' reflection provided time for a smarter response from Wellingtonians. Comedian Raybon Kan suggested that the city embrace the ‘dying city’ moniker and become the world’s euthanasia capital. “Only Switzerland could be better at it,” he said.

Dominion Post stalwart Anthony Hubbard thanked the PM for speaking rude words in church.

“The PM’s insult was worth a hundred comforting cliches about the ‘coolest little capital’,” he said (which is what Lonely Planet has called it).

The Wellington Chamber of Commerce labelled it a “wake up call”.

Grenville Main, chief executive of Wellington design company DNA, says the PM didn’t say anything new or shocking – he just poked an old sore.

“People are saying ‘yeah, he’s right’. But also ‘nah, he’s so wrong – and we’ll prove him wrong!”

Wellington already knows it needs therapy (“’Hi, I’m the Capital and I have a problem”) but looking to government or Auckland or Asia won’t help. Like all good therapists will tell you, the answer must come from within.

wellington waterfront - idealog - wellington intellectual capital

You got ... personalIty

So what are Wellingtonians suggesting? You probably know some of their solutions already. There’s a $30 million extension to the airport, which they hope will bring in business from Asia. There’s the completion of the motorway system connecting the port and airport to the lower North Island. There’s a convention centre on the waterfront to rival SkyCity. And there are plans to attract call centres from across ditch, where costs are higher.

There’s also the Super City. Sound familiar? Main says amalgamation of Greater Wellington’s five cities may bring the kind of synergies that Auckland is now enjoying.

“We have too many entities for too few people. It’s dumb and wasteful,” he says.

And then there’s the happy little secret about Wellington that doesn’t quite translate to the graphs and tables of an economist’s report. Something that’s experienced more than measured. It’s found in the groovy cafés and tech company offices and in the random meetings on the corner of Cuba and Vivien Streets.

Read more - Coffee fuels Wellington's newest creative venue

“It’s like a personality,” says Nick Churchouse, business development manager at Creative HQ, Wellington’s highly successful business incubator. Churchouse could work anywhere. His skills in communication and project management are in hot demand. He’s got connections all over the globe. But he chooses Wellington.

“It’s got an intensity that’s addictive,” he says. “The weather is challenging, but that adds to the sense of being a pioneering city – we’re fighting the elements together. “The geography’s challenging, because we’re hemmed in by sea and mountains. That means we all have to collaborate or fight. It creates an energy that builds on top of itself.”

wellington projects underwayPeter Griffin, a former Auckland-based technology journalist, used to hate Wellington. “The only reason I came down here was to attend Victoria University’s creative writing course in 2006. But once I got here I fell in love with the inner city. It’s so vibrant with bars and cafés and bookshops and the theatre – it has the biggest concentration of creative talent in New Zealand.”

The following year Griffin was asked by Royal Society to launch the Science Media Centre and was given the option to base it anywhere. “But Wellington’s the logical place. It’s the centre of the science ecosystem – with three universities, three Crown Research Institutes, the Ministry, The Royal Society, Malaghan and MacDiarmid Institutes. Wellington’s a revolving door of science talent.”

This idea of an ecosystem applies to other sectors. Take ICT.

“In the 2000s this was the heart of software development in New Zealand,” says Griffin. “You had the startup entrepreneurs like Sam Morgan, Rod Drury, Rowan Simpson and Tim Norton. And then there were the larger IT companies that had their roots in Wellington like Intergen, Datacom and Synergy [now called Fronde]. It’s the home of Internet NZ and the open-internet pioneers and events like Webstock. That spirit continues, only now the little guys [Xero] have become one of the largest companies on the NZX.”

He’s talking about ‘Silicon Welly’. Is it still? “Oh yes! Wellington is like an informal incubation system,” says Marie-Claire Andrews, founder of tech startup ShowGizmo. She arrived from the UK 11 years ago and chose Wellington as a place from which to launch her business.

“I’ve got everything I need in terms of culture and fun but what’s amazing is the tight-knit developer community.

“In Auckland, all my friends are doctors and lawyers. In Wellington, they’re all entrepreneurs.”

It’s the reason why Dan Khan moved from Auckland too. Khan is the director of Lightning Lab, an international incubation programme run under license by Creative HQ.

“Wellington is further advanced than Auckland in terms of the links between startups and the rest of the business community,” Khan says.

“The outside view of Wellington is that it’s already a tight community but actually it’s much more integrated than you think.”

“We have a fantastic support network,” says Nathan Li, founder of startup Educa and incubator participant at Creative HQ. Li was an overseas student at Victoria University who later scored a job at Intergen and then set up his educational software business. He sees no reason to leave, given that in Wellington he gets free advice from the likes of Sam Morgan and Rowan Simpson and has a regular coffee with David ten Have, founder of Ponoko.

“After a while I said to these guys, how am I going to pay you? David just said ‘well, when it’s your turn you buy the next guy a coffee’. It’s how it works here.”

The business

Another vibrant ecosystem is the film industry based around Weta in Miramar. Wellingtonians privately complain about Weta creating ‘a world of its own’ – the Republic of Seatoun as one person put it. But that’s not entirely fair. Weta and Wingnut have single-handedly (okay, there’s a bit of IRD support) brought Hollywood to Wellington, dragging high- profile investors such as James Cameron with it. He now owns a chunk of Wairarapa land and Weta is supposedly working on Avatar 2.

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“It’s true that they have created a self-contained campus in Miramar,” says Churchouse.

“But every so often some of the significant smarts that creative cluster attracts will emerge from the bowels of Weta, Stone Street or Park Road Post seeking a path of their own. For example, we helped Miramar tech guru Duncan Nimmo and Wingnut Films with a plan to commercialise in-house software allowing daily rushes to be encrypted and then sent to an iPad.

“That’s not the sort of combo you’d get unless there was this unique community.”

Read more - Is the NZ film industry all it's cracked up to be?

And let’s not forget government. It may be shrinking in both spend and staffing but actually plenty is still going on, especially for the suppliers such as Fronde, a software company with government clients that employs 350 staff and has offices in Auckland, Sydney and Melbourne. Its base is in Wellington.

“We don’t call ourselves a Wellington company and we’re not here for patriotic reasons,” says chief executive Ian Clarke. “I’m South Island farming boy! We are here because this is where our longest-standing customers are and continue to be.”

That said, it’s a great place to do business. “The infrastructure is good, it’s relatively easy to attract talent, we have great relationships with the tertiary providers and we can travel to the rest of the region relatively easily.”

Grenville Main says the shrinking of government has been beneficial in an unexpected way. “It’s taken a while for it all to settle down, and that’s been frustrating, but the quality of thinking and the of work that we are being asked to do, especially around e-government, is really, really good. They are determined to reduce waste and that drives some hard questions.”

DNA, like many Wellington companies, is hiring again. “We can’t hire fast enough in usability design and service design. In fact, we were building a wall to reduce our office space, but I think we need to knock it down again!”

wellington potential - statisticsSecret sauce

Cool companies, hot coffee, Hollywood stars and government departments: is this recipe enough to turn Wellington around? Probably not, but it’s a better start than most New Zealand cities have.

Co-founder of Wellington software company Intergen Wayne Forgesson describes his town as a brilliant frustration.

“I travel a lot for our business, which has offices in Auckland and Australia. I’ve been asked lots of times to shift there. But I love it here. It’s close knit, and yet it still has enough to be a city.”

He also believes it’s a city that’s failed to hit its true potential.

“If it were a school kid you’d say ‘could do better’. We have everything we need to succeed. But there are two challenges: there isn’t a unified voice or plan across the region. Auckland’s done it and so should we. And our civic leaders don’t have a growth agenda. Or at least if they do, I don’t see it. And neither do the people I hang out with.”

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So much potential, but so little to show for it.

Whatever is the key to unlocking the potential, the door will be somewhere near the intersection of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place, where money, ideas and talent bump into each and create opportunity. It’ll be where Datacom meets Creative HQ and where MacDiarmid meets Weta Digital. As for the airport and motorway, they’re important and will connect the capital to world, but they’ll be empty without that intellectual capital.