Since the 1970s, neither Whanganui region nor city has grown fast – but a series of initiatives has helped both to hold their own.
New economic activities took off in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly in produce such as timber, fish or ironsands, or through government projects.
Exotic pine forests planted at Santoft from 1956 and Lismore from 1963 led to a sawmilling industry from 1987 at Santoft and 1991 at Lismore. From 1975 more forests were planted, and in 1978 a pulp mill was built at Karioi.
Wanganui Trawlers, established in 1965, became a multi-million dollar enterprise. It operated inshore vessels and a processing plant, and had a joint fishing venture with a Korean company.
In 1971 a contract was signed for mining and processing ironsands at Waipipi, near Waverley, for shipment to Japan. The contract finished in 1988, and the affected dunes were turned into pasture.
From late 1974 the New Zealand Philatelic Bureau (now called Collectables and Solutions) was based in Whanganui, and from 1975 the Wanganui Computer Centre provided a national computerised system for law enforcement.
In 1984 Suzuki New Zealand’s head office was established in Whanganui, and the city opened its first tertiary educational institution, the Wanganui Regional Community College.
New Whanganui firms include Axiam Group, which has made precision metal and plastic components for high-tech products since the early 1990s. Q-West, set up in 1994, makes steel and aluminium boats, and provides marine engineering services.
Restructuring and job losses
Much state assistance for farming ended in 1985. This hit hill-country farming particularly hard, and many families relied on off-farm jobs to survive. Hill-country districts, however, benefited from growth in recreational activity – for instance on the Whanganui and Rangitīkei rivers, and at the Tūroa ski field, which had opened in 1979.
As government operations were restructured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the region saw much downsizing and some closures. For Marton, Taihape, Ōhakune and Whanganui the downsizing of the railways meant job losses. In Whanganui over 1,000 jobs were lost in total, across a range of industries.
In 1992, Auckland fishing company Sanford bought Wanganui Seafoods (formerly Wanganui Trawlers) to obtain the firm’s fishing quota allocation. The plant closed in 1998 with the loss of 103 jobs. The Whanganui computer centre was sold and its operations shifted to Auckland in 1995; 120 jobs were lost.
Further job losses came with the closure or downsizing of various other Whanganui manufacturers.
Pacific Helmets was founded in 1980 to make motorcycle helmets for the Australasian market. Eventually it came to specialise in safety helmets for emergency services – fire, ambulance, rescue and police.
Imlay freezing works in Whanganui survived the downsizing of the meat-freezing industry, and a meat processing plant was built near Waitōtara in 1988. A state-of-the-art meat-processing plant, CMP Rangitikei, is located at Greatford.
A large shopping complex was built in Whanganui city by the Australian firm K Mart in 1989. From the 1990s several innovative manufacturing operations were set up, notably Axiam Group, Q-West, Masterfoods and Havoc Coffee. Some existing ones, for example Pacific Helmets, expanded.
In 1992, the city’s central business district was revitalised in a scheme to preserve and promote architecture from the city’s heyday (the 1870s to 1920s). Two Whanganui riverboats were restored and returned to the river – the Waimarie in 2000, and the Wairua in 2006.
Despite these efforts, the region’s 2013 population of 61,791 was over 10,000 less than in 1966. The rural population fell from nearly 20,000 in 1966 to 12,600 in 2013, a decline echoed in other parts of the country. Whanganui city’s population in 2013 (38,088) was almost unchanged from 40 years earlier.
The city and the region survive on their inherited strengths and the energy and commitment of their citizens, rather than a strong economic basis.