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Howard's End: Show Us The Money!

When Government paid the West Coast $120 million of taxpayer's money to halt native timber harvesting, optimism for new jobs was high. But a year on, the publicly-elected economic development trust who is charged with managing the money, has not held a public meeting or produced an agenda or minutes for public scrutiny. Maree Howard writes.

Optimism is turning to frustration and cynicism of the West Coast as the West Coast Development Trust seems to be struggling with its new-found wealth, responsibilities and accountability.

When the Government came to power at the last election, it decided to end the harvesting of native timber on the West Coast and it paid-out of taxpayer funds a $120 million adjustment package to be used for economic development.

A trust deed was written and agreed between Government ministers and representatives of the Coast. The trust deed says that trustees are to be accountable and transparent to the people of the West Coast, which the Trust has defined as meaning only having to hold a public meeting of the Trust once a year. The auditor-general agrees that this is acceptable.

After the trust deed was written trustees were then elected from each area - Buller, Grey and Westland. Trustees were also appointed from local councils and Government.

After a year, no meetings of the Trust which the public are able to attend have been held, and only one job has been created, that of a chief executive who was appointed just a few weeks ago.

Scoop put four questions in an email to Trust chairman Frank Dooley last Monday.

1. How many funding applications has the trust approved so far?

2. What has been the costs of trust operations, administration and fees so far?

3. Why will the trust not fund applications under $20,000 when it has an obligation to create business development and the West Coast councils have no obligation to spend their share of the $120 million package on economic development?

4. Has the trust board ever held its meetings in public. or produced an agenda and minutes for public scrutiny of publicly-provided funds? If not, why not?

Chairman, Frank Dooley, would not answer by email citing prior commitments, but instead suggested that I travel to Westport to interview him and the new chief executive.

Scoop suggested that perhaps in the meantime the chief executive could answer the questions. There has been no reply in over a week.

When the trustees decided that they will not fund applications under $20,000 for people wanting to start new business ventures eyebrows were raised.

And that's the rub for some West Coaster's.

The new chief executive of the trust, Michael Trousselot, is reported in The Press newspaper this morning; "If we can find a massive employer and bring them here, sure, but the answer is to help the existing businesses expand, the ma and pa businesses. That's where the sucess will be, in the two-to-10 job size."

Scoop knows of a small South Westland business who has become successful and employed people when the Westland District Council's economic development committee Westland's Working, had to provide $19,000 from its funds to buy a new piece of food processing machinery to expand its business opportunities.

While the economic development trust has the clear responsibility to help create jobs and provide funds for economic development on the West Coast, this small and now sucessful business was unable to access those funds because of the arbitrary $20,000 criteria.

It's not as though the money received from the trust is a grant - it's a loan which must be paid back, so it can only be wondered at the logic of the trust's no-applications-under-$20,000 criteria.

And then there are other people who hope to start small businesses such as organic food production. They are also prevented from getting a head-start from the development trust.

One West Coast timber mill operator who wants to convert his mill from processing native timber to pine alleges that a meeting of timber processors was told by the trust chairman that if they have sources of traditional finance don't bother coming to the trust.

Others criticise the trust for having application criteria which exceeds those of many banks and financial institutions.

Jim Anderton, Minister of Economic Development, was on the Coast last week and some of these issues were raised with him at meetings, but Coaster's are not holding their breath that things will improve. They can only wait for the next trust elections - in about three years.

There are huge opportunities on the Coast for things like wind-power generation. Scoop readers will recall last week where I wrote that New Zealand electricity company Trustpower is investing $200 million in a wind-farm in South Australia.

But, surprisingly, Trustpower again pushed its hydro-electricity dam proposed to be built on conservation estate at Dobson north of Greymouth with Jim Anderton last week. Trustpower proposes a land-swap.

There are also huge opportunities for snow-skiing in the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Allah behind Hari Hari. There are opportunities for wasabi growing, watercress, land-based aquaculture and fish farming, growing sugar-beet, lilleys, Malaysian orchids and organic herbs and vegetables, and even an adventure camp and eco-training college - the list goes on.

Westland District Mayor, John Drylie, has also been wanting to analyse the micro-climates across the whole region to try and determine what can be grown in north-facing pockets of available land - like they did in Southland. So far, nobody seems to be too interested.

And what about a bigger project such as a covered-in sports stadium, combined with a concert venue and convention centre. The West Coast doesn't have one - probably because of the curse of parochialism.

Coaster's are known around the country as legendary, but parochialism is rife. So much so that during the local body election campaign The Press newspaper reporter based on the Coast wrote that Westland Mayor John Drylie was "a relatively new-comer to the Coast." He's been here 18 years.

Some of the projects outlined would likely require less than $20,000 to establish - but the economic development trust $20,000 funding criteria, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a block in getting the smaller ones established.

It seems that what the trustees need to understand is there is a thing called opportunity cost when opportunities are lost by having such risk-averse criteria.

ENDS

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