Cut to the quick, we were, dear Reader by the accusation in last Saturday’s paper that we were being negative and acting out of vested interests. That came from the Wellington consultant in charge of the Regional Gardens Project. After several weeks of intensive work analysing and discussing the proposals, a group of us tabled a common sense alternative plan with the Council. Well, we thought it was based on common sense and lots of experience. Alas the project group appeared to have made up its mind already that we were being negative, unhelpful and driven by self interest.
So what did we propose? Mindful of the fact that every owner of a large garden knows that gardens and property are bottomless pits which will absorb all the money you throw in and more, we urged caution. These are ratepayer dollars we are talking about and we will all end up contributing.
The Regional Council took over Hollard Gardens near Kaponga and Tupare in New Plymouth. We urged Council to understand that while these gardens are publicly owned, they are domestic gardens which are very different to public parks. By their very nature, domestic gardens start life as family gardens created with the skill, vision and the personal money of their owners. They are individual, personal and intimate. That is what makes them so different to public parks and gardens. The challenge for Council is to retain that individuality when they are in the public domain and to avoid the tendency to treat them like public parks and contract out management and centralise services. Such a move, we cautioned, would turn these two gardens into mini urban parks, except that one is in a relatively remote location and the other has a very steep terrain.
Both Hollards and Tupare have suffered for years from chronic underfunding and understaffing. Despite that, Hollards has retained its premier position and is independently rated as a Garden of National Significance. Tupare has not fared anywhere near as well and is a shadow of its former glory under the Matthews’ family management. We advocated learning from what has worked. Hollards has a resident garden manager who loves the garden, was trained in part by the Hollards themselves and who has kept standard high.
Give Tupare the same, we suggested. A resident garden manager who can give the garden the love and skill it needs.
Keep the gardens autonomous, we urged. Of course it makes sense to centralise marketing and administration, but the day to day management of the gardens is best done by a skilled head gardener. That way the personal nature and the individuality is retained.
Staff the gardens adequately. Spend more money on staff and less on management and operations. Hollards needs three gardening staff (it is very labour intensive) while Tupare, after an initial huge injection of funds and labour to get it right again, should be able to be maintained by two fulltime gardeners. Have people working in the gardens to talk to visitors rather than relying on storytelling devices like storyboards and handouts. These gardens must be better than any other garden all year round – showpiece gardens – so make sure they have sufficient skilled people to achieve this.
Start an apprenticeship scheme in the gardens to train quality gardeners and put Taranaki on the map. There is a growing demand for trained gardeners and a desperate shortage. Give Taranaki people another career choice and enhance the future of the gardens.
Get the gardens right and prove a demand exists before spending megabucks on capital works. Council took over gardens to manage and this should be done well first. In recognition that Tupare has the potential to become a heritage house and garden, place a moratorium on further structural alterations to the house and the original landscaping. Keep up the maintenance but stop pouring money into the buildings and facilities and concentrate on the garden.
Record the special values of each property and set in place a really simple low cost or no cost monitoring strategy to ensure that a wayward and determined head gardener can not wreak havoc on the place. Cut out other unnecessary layers of management.
When we tabled to Council last week, we noted that around $250 000 had been spent already on consultant reports but not one extra hour of labour or one extra plant had gone into the gardens. In fact more up to date figures show that it is now over $297 000 spent so far and still climbing. (Maybe it was negative to point that out?)
Get back to basics. Learn from what has worked. The gardens are individual. Keep them that way. One size does not fit all. Steer away from the institutional model and keep it simple.
We advocated for some discussion on potential cost recovery on the gardens (charging entry, in simple terms). As the plans stand, most of the money flow is one way – out from Council coffers. Sure council parks are always free, but we tried to stress that these gardens are not the same as council parks. These domestic gardens are considerably more expensive to run than a council park on a per square metre basis. At least talk about charging issues with the gardens and weigh up the options.
I am a little ashamed to admit that we failed in our presentation to grasp the importance of The Vision. We had thought that valuing the heritage of Tupare and Hollards, making them fine assets for both locals and tourists, setting the standard in open gardens and leading the way in putting Taranaki on the map as a garden visitor destination was a justifiable vision. But of course if you are going to spend nearly $300 000 (and still rising), clearly you want a Grand Vision – with a grand budget of several million dollars to match. And apparently you can’t have strategy without vision. We criticised the plans on the table for discussion at the moment as being long on vision and short on reality. Our alternatives, I fear, are actually long on strategy but apparently narrow in vision. C’est la vie.
And we applauded the resolve of the Council to make these two gardens excellent and to resolve past difficulties in managing them well.
If that, dear Reader, and much more detail, smacks of self interest and negativity to you, then we stand guilty as charged.