Tag Archives: Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust

A letter from a ratepayer

Mr David McLeod, Chair
Taranaki Regional Council,

Dear David,
I was terribly thrilled to read your press release about having secured the future of Pukeiti. That is so exciting.

I see that you personally rank the importance of Pukeiti right up there alongside our maunga, our mountain, Taranaki. Now I don’t want to be accused of raining on your parade, but you don’t think that maybe you were getting a little carried away with the hype of the situation? That perhaps you have overstated the importance just a trifle? I admit I don’t know you (you don’t mind me addressing you as David, do you? It is just that as you are quite good at spending my money, I feel as if I have some sort of relationship with you). Maybe you do in fact wake each fine morning and look out at both Mount Taranaki and Pukeiti and feel a sense of identity. Maybe when your travelling children are asked where they are from, they identify themselves as coming from Taranaki, the home of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust. Maybe you have enjoyed such frequent visits to Pukeiti all your life that you feel a deeply personal sense of ownership and belonging. Alas, much of your electorate has already voted with their feet and decided that in fact Pukeiti is not such a part of their very identity – that is the whole nub of the problem. Visitor numbers simply haven’t been high enough to support the dream – a dream that belonged to somebody else. But I don’t want to be negative. I am assuming that you and your councillors did a breakdown on visitor numbers to work out how many were local and how many were tourists? And as you are so hellbent on making it free for everybody, I guess that your public consultation showed that ratepayers are glad to pay so that tourist attractions have free entry for visitors from out of the region.

I mention this, David, because in your press release you approved the takeover of Pukeiti “in the wake of positive feedback during public consultation…” That is absolutely wonderful, no doubt about it. I wouldn’t for one minute want to be accused of pouring cold water on your plans. It may be that your networks in the gardening, plants and garden tourism scene are hugely better than mine. That would explain why nobody I have met in the last six months has been consulted. My networks must be terrible. I am talking to the wrong people. No matter, you have apparently found the right people to talk to. Mark says he would really like to hear the names of all three of them.

But lest you think I am moaning, really, David, my reason for writing is to offer you some help. Your press release says that ” …work will begin soon on plans to develop and enhance the property and its plant collection. This will be similar to the planning processes which resulted in the very successful redevelopment and refurbishment of the Council’s existing heritage properties, Tupare and Hollard Gardens. We are looking forward to involving the Trust, PKW and a range of people in this exercise.” That sounds absolutely splendid, very consultative. It is just that I am pretty sure that this has all been done already, quite recently in fact, and I still have the discussion papers in my archives. Actually it is not that long ago – 2005 in fact and I can date it exactly because it all happened when Mark and I were flicking off to look at magnolias in northern Italy. I think along with all the discussion papers from Big Names like Boffa Miscall, Berl and others, somewhere, just somewhere, I even have a letter from your CEO, Basil, telling me how much ratepayer money had been spent on these plans. These sums (measuring into the multi hundreds of thousands of dollars but I would need to find the letter to confirm exact figures) included plans for Hollards and Tupare as well, but the ratepayer has already paid for big plans to take Pukeiti in to a new era of popularity.

Sure, it has to be admitted that some of those plans may have been just a tad grandiose. I think they even included a new home for the wandering gondola, along with a little shopping arcade, of sorts. A tourism hub, even. And fabulous (and I mean fabulous) visitor numbers.

But a little bird told me, and I wouldn’t want to be quoted on this because I haven’t had the information officially and it may be completely wrong, that after Regional Council paid for all those plans five long years ago, the Pukeiti Trust Board commissioned another review and set of development plans immediately after. I think what I was told was that the annual grant of $50 000 of ratepayer money, allocated by Regional Council, was further reinvested in this new set of plans to save Pukeiti. I just recall some discussions at the time because some of us felt that maybe they could have been spending that windfall of 50 grand on another gardener instead of yet more development plans. I am just guessing, maybe putting two and two together and making five, that that was why Pukeiti went ahead and appointed a new CEO with a highly relevant record in managing Speedway. I recently found a newspaper clipping where that new CEO declared that within six months of him starting in his new position, Pukeiti would be re-branded as a functions and events centre. Funny thing that. Six months came and went and it doesn’t seem that long after, the new CEO also went. Made redundant in preparation for Regional Council taking over, do we think?

David, I don’t want to be a moaner but it just may be that there are plenty of recent reports already available to be drawn on, without having to start again. We don’t want to be accused of re-inventing the wheel, do we? Or to make ourselves vulnerable to an accusation of pouring more rate-payer money down the wishing well. Maybe somebody could pick up the phone and have a chat to the immediate past CEO to find out what did and didn’t work?

You don’t think, do you, that maybe it could be argued that it is a teensy weensy little bit precious to say that the cost of Regional Council picking up the tab for Pukeiti will have “minimal impact on average regional rates — over a full year, less than half the cost of the $14 entry fee Pukeiti has been charging up until now” (your words, not mine). That might be true had all ratepayers demonstrated that they wanted to visit Pukeiti at least once a year. A veritable bargain in fact. Such a shame they didn’t. Had they shown this burning desire to visit, Pukeiti would not be in the pickle it is. Instead they would have been run off their feet, even more so on their gold coin donation days when the financially impoverished would have flocked there. In fact, if you take the cost of running the place and divide it by the number of visitors, it just may be that you will find the cost of attracting every single visitor is somewhere nearer $70 per person. Even if you double the attendance in a short space of time, it is still around $35 of ratepayer money to give every visitor free entrance.

Lest you think I am being grumpy, David, I am already on public record as saying that for us personally, Regional Council making sure that Pukeiti survives is, on balance, a good move. We know what Pukeiti’s standing has been internationally, which is more than many of your ratepayers who just have to take your word for it. We also know which key individuals worked tirelessly to earn Pukeiti that credibility. In fact we know quite a bit about the history of Pukeiti. We just hope that you and your fellow councillors have a pretty good grip on it all too After all, you wouldn’t want history to record that you were the people who were all too ready to spend other people’s money trying to realise a lost dream. The Pukeiti dream of Douglas Cook and the founders has long gone. Now you have a large garden in a cold and damp out-of-the-way position, served by a really bad road, branded with a plant which used to be incredibly popular and of high status but few people want any longer.

Do let me know if you need the reports I mentioned.
Kind regards,

Today’s column is but the latest in a series over recent years. Earlier columns on this topic include:
1) A tale of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer funding Published March this year.
2) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 1 – first published late 2004
3) Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 2 – first published, apparently January 2005 – the best piece of writing for those who can’t be bothered wading through the lot.
4) And Taranaki Regional Gardens Part 3 – which rather tells about the treatment of an unsolicited submission. When in doubt, levy accusations of self interest.

A tale of the future of Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust and ratepayer money.

“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.