“So what do you think about Taranaki Regional Council taking over Pukeiti?” is a question we have been asked by a number of people recently. Speaking initially out of complete self interest, we have to say that we think it is a good thing. We are deeply involved with the open garden sector, particularly our annual festival, because that makes it worthwhile for us to maintain our own garden to opening standard. For Taranaki to retain a pre-eminent position in the open garden scene, we need a solid core of professional gardens with a secure future and the public garden sector has a big role to play in that. We have a proud tradition here of splendid private gardens but over the past two decades we have seen quite a few come and go. Ageing owners, sales of properties, ill health and, alas, deaths can see a first rate private garden closed overnight. I could reel off a list of a dozen excellent gardens which no longer open or have simply gone. So the public gardens give a level of stability for the rest of us.
That is not to say that we don’t have reservations about ratepayers picking up the tab for Pukeiti. We certainly don’t blame the trustees of that garden for trying to sell their dream to Regional Council to ensure preservation in one form or another, even if Mark has been quipping that he would like to place a death notice for demise of the original vision of founder Douglas Cook and his colleagues. There always have been some issues with Pukeiti, particularly a degree of cargo cult mentality (build the facilities and the crowds will come) and a level of grandiose vision which was overly optimistic. The remarkable achievement in establishing an international reputation rests on a few key individuals over time backed up by great support from volunteers. Pukeiti was particularly lucky to attract and retain the services of its now retired director, Graham Smith, who more than anyone fronted at an international level and established the credentials of the rhododendron collection here. But times change and an organisation which always had trouble living within its means, failed entirely to keep a lid on the budget to the point where its very existence is threatened. So what to do? Transfer it to the ratepayer.
I imagine that every single elected councillor and senior officer of the three district councils in our area are heaving a collective sigh of relief that the problem that is Pukeiti has landed on Regional Council, not at district council level. But they are also probably wondering just how Regional Council can ease this whole situation in under the ratepayer radar. When every dollar the district councils spend is scrutinised closely, even to the provision of public toilets, somehow the TRC can get away with massive new spending and little is said.
TRC claim that the decision to take over the management and ownership of Pukeiti is currently out for consultation but I have yet to hear from anyone who is being consulted. And as the latest Pukeiti newsletter tells us that the CEO has been made redundant and gone already, it all looks like a done deal to us. Rather it appears as if the lid is being kept tightly pressed down to discourage any public debate and consultation is probably limited to those who are going to give the right answers. As I say, a done deal.
It is a slight mystery to us as to why the TRC are so hellbent on owning and running gardens. District Councils run parks (Pukekura Park in New Plymouth and Stratford and Hawera have their own established city parks) but TRC has taken on extremely labour intensive gardens, by no means in the best locations or with the most friendly terrain and with no record of being financially viable. What is more, TRC policy is that these gardens have free entry, not even raising money through gate charges or added value experiences. So moving against the national tide of change where there is a trend to more and more user-pays, TRC is determined to provide these facilities with free entry. Except that there is no such thing as free. It is merely a case of transferring who pays and spreading it across the total ratepayer base. This is interesting when the target visitors go well beyond locals to include both international and domestic tourists. Why would you Qualmark a garden unless you wanted to attract tourists?
The TRC has gone beyond providing quality gardens. The add-on now to justify the spending is swelling the numbers tracked in the garden gates with free entertainment. Except it is not free. It is ratepayer funded. In saying that, I do not denigrate the efforts by the TRC staff and the regional gardens’ manager who are working hard to attract the punters and clearly there is some considerable success in the numbers game. All credit to them for their gardening workshops and tours. I question a little how farmers markets fit in with the vision of Bernie and Rose Hollard which is meant to drive the ethos of Hollard Gardens. But more incongruous is the cheap cuts cooking workshop at Tupare (Relive the Splendour, I think was how the vision of Tupare was encapsulated by TRC). I am not sure that the style and panache of Sir Russell and Lady Matthews sits easily alongside cheap meat cuts. But all is fair when you measure gardens’ success by numbers through the gate. Except that people who go to farmers markets or to cooking demonstrations are not bona fide garden visitors. It is one thing to count people who go to garden workshops run by the garden staff, it is quite another to count people who go to free entertainment or unrelated activities which could just as well be hosted in any number of other more convenient locations.
Some might be wondering what lies in store for Pukeiti. What hoops will the garden managers be expected to leap through in order to attract bigger visitor numbers to that somewhat out of the way location with its relatively inhospitable climate? I for one don’t envy them though I would suggest that if they could just negotiate with John Rae to get Americana based at Pukeiti next time, they might reach their targets without having to stage jelly wrestling, big time wrestling or other crowd pleasers.
Personally, we don’t mind paying a little extra in our rates to see these gardens managed well but we would like to see some wider debate about TRC’s activities. The justification of preserving our heritage has a whiff of empire building about it. Now that we have the gardens, are they going to be looking at other heritage places and activities. Chaddy’s Charters has a sense of heritage. When Chaddy wants to retire, will TRC take over the lifeboat and offer it free to all comers? If the Mokau cream boat run would just move to the south side of the river, would it be eligible as Taranaki heritage? Maybe we should just be grateful that it is too late for the regional ratepayers to pick up the tab for the Patea chimney preservation.