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Waitaki District Council economic development manager Gerard Quinn believes the Waitaki district is on the cusp of huge change – and he is excited about what is to come. Six months into the job, he chats to Oamaru Mail editor Rebecca Ryan about how he is settling in and his goals and priorities for 2019.

A Palmerston boy who found his way home to Waitaki.

The Waitaki District Council’s new economic development manager Gerard Quinn is pleased to be back and says there is a lot to be positive about in the district.

Coming into the newly established council role gave Mr Quinn the opportunity to shape it himself.

“Sir Peter Blake said it best – ‘How can we make the boat go faster?’,” he said.

The role, in his words, was “about trying to articulate our identity and what we want – and then looking for synergies and leverage from the private sector, through tertiary education, from central government, to actually invest in this place for ourselves and our future generations”.

It was not an easy task to balance all of the opportunities Waitaki had with the more conservative elements of the district to find the right way forward.

“There is a diverse range of perspectives and what we’re trying to do is find that positivism,” he said.

Mr Quinn brings to the role experience as chief executive of Grow Wellington; in developing the Hawke’s Bay regional economic development strategy and action plan; developing social enterprise options on Mahia Peninsula; and as chief executive of the Canterbury Development Corporation, the economic development agency for Christchurch during the earthquake recovery period.

While the primary sector was the backbone of the district, Mr Quinn would like to see Waitaki diversify for resilience.

The opportunities and possibilities of the Waitaki Whitestone Geopark and the Oamaru harbour redevelopment were what initially attracted him to the role.

“I thought, if I can do these things well, then it’ll make a difference and we’ll see what happens after that,” he said.

Mr Quinn would like to see the Oamaru harbour become a destination for a wider group of people – and see more of a link between it and the Victorian Precinct both for the residents and visitors.

Securing Unesco status as a global geopark was another exciting possibility.

“It’s not just about geology … it’s the umbrella under which we can share the story of this land and how it’s impacting the lives of people and hopefully, we can breed a new generation of people who, because they understand the land, will take pride in it and care for it and address those societal challenges like climate change and environmental protection,” he said.

“It’s about our history, it’s about why the biodiversity here is different to what we have in the rest of New Zealand … all of those things that are actually geologically unique to the Waitaki district.

“We want to get a community of producers, hospitality providers, restaurants saying ‘here’s something that makes us special’.

Waitaki was well placed between Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown.

“What if we could do something here so we were the diamond jewel? We could actually start changing the routes and [relieving] infrastructure pressures from places like Queenstown,” he said.

At the same time, Waitaki’s tourism offering had to be sustainable and also enhance the lives of residents.

He was also focused on the need for creating more meaningful employment options for young people.

“We need to find ways to keep youth and attract young professionals,” he said.

“Identifying potential business attraction opportunities, trying to encourage business growth, working closely with the Chamber of Commerce, and trying to weave our strands through of how council can help the economy, which helps the community.”

There was room for improvement in Oamaru’s housing stock, he said.

“There isn’t a huge range of options here, we’ve got four bedroom houses out here for families or old villas with single glazed sash windows,” he said.

Waitaki’s ageing population would also be a challenge.

“We do have ageing demographics, so how do we accommodate that? Not only in terms of housing, but keeping them involved in the workforce and community,” he said.

Mr Quinn said he had found Oamaru to be inclusive and friendly – with a lot of optimism.

He wanted to take that and encourage people to feel comfortable and confident enough to express their views to the council and become more involved in the consultation process.

“There’s the opportunity right now for people to feel confidence in having their voice heard about how we grow this place and my desire is for people to get up and get involved in it,” he said.

Incorporating all of this into the council’s draft economic development strategy is one of Mr Quinn’s requirements before June 30.