Pride of the South (and no, I’m not talking about Speights!)

It’s with no little satisfaction that I’ve watched the recent motoring and motorsport-led ‘rejuvenation/rehabilitation/renaissance’ of Invercargill and environs…based largely on a foundation laid by ‘truck museum’ founder, the late, Bill Richardson.

The reason is simple. I was born just up the road in Gore Hospital, then raised first at Otama (near Riversdale) then in ‘town’ (Gore). And despite having made a life for myself and my family in Auckland, there are still strong bonds which tie me emotionally to my home ‘place’ and the city at its heart.

These bonds are more than ‘familial’ and are probably best defined by saying that ‘while you can take the boy out of Southland you can’t take Southland out of the boy!’

In theory I’m a farmer’s son, but in practice my future was decided for me when my grandfather died Intestate (without, bizarrely, leaving a will) and the farm my father worked on with his father and step-brother which , in theory my own brother and I would have stood to part inherit…… had to be sold to cover death duties (basically a punitive inheritance tax on the statute books until the mid-1990s).

Whether I would ever have gone back on the farm is a bit of a moot point. It would have been nice to have had the option though.

At the time, of course, (we’re talking the mid-to-late 1970s here) Southland was a great place to grow up in, but not such a great place to find a job and settle down – unless you had a farm to go back on to, or you wanted to be a builder/plumber/sparkie, or a lawyer/accountant/teacher or nurse.

In this respect, to be honest it was no different to any other provincial area at the time. And because I had my heart set on 1) getting out and seeing the world, and 2) pursuing a career in journalism, I was ‘outa there’ after the 7th form (Year 13) with barely a backwards glance.

I returned off and on in the immediate years following – including an enjoyable eight-month stint on graduating from Journalism school at Canterbury Uni – when the only employer interested in taking me on was the Editor of The Ensign newspaper in Gore!

But that’s been it. Wellington then Auckland have been where I have laid my hat since.

I should actually say ‘hats’ because I must have worn out several in the (gulp!) 42 years since I loaded up my Yamaha DT400 dirt bike and headed north in late February 1978.

Since then I’ve often despaired of my home province in general and Invercargill in particular.

On the one hand the place is never far from the news – which isn’t bad considering the province itself is home to only 100,000 people, with 50,000 of those living in Invercargill – yet it’s really only been in the past five or so years that what news that has come out of it has carried any sort of positive ‘vibe.’

Yes, I know that ‘Mayor Tim’ is always good for a quote and ‘goofy grin’ visual. And the Zero Fees initiative by the local Technical Institute has helped breathe new life into the eastern end of Tay Street.

For years before though the place couldn’t buy a break, despite the province’s traditional export-focused economy punching well above its weight in terms of the country’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

As I mentioned in last week’s column there has never been any shortage of economic activity in the province, its main trading hub (Invercargill) and its port (Bluff).

What there has been a real shortage of is a positive spin (or attitude) from the local and national media.

As a journalist by training (as well as inclination) I can understand the ‘reticence’ (I suppose the word is) to be all ‘Ra-Ra-Ra’ all the time. I can also hear an old sub-editor of mine thunder about the ‘fourth estate’s role being to keep profligate councils and their megalomaniac mayors and councillors in line.’

But really, there was no excuse for the rampant and endemic negativity which reached its nadir when (and to be fair this was probably 20 or so years ago now), after skimping on even basic maintenance for years, the then owners of the Tiwai Point aluminium smelter finally stumped up some serious cash for an upgrade, therefore ensuring its future (and that of something like 1000 direct local jobs).

This was generally considered ‘good news’ by pretty much everyone except a small cabal of staff on The Southland Times newspaper.

With a press release containing all of the figures needed, plus a couple of calls for comment from Mayor Tim and perhaps the local head of the Southland Chamber of Commerce this should have been a ‘Smelter commits to spend/province breaths sigh of relief’ kind of front page lead.

Instead – and I still chuckle when I think of the sheer human folly and pig-headed, bloody-minded, head-in-the-sand obtuseness behind the decision – the story was spun by members of said cabal into a double sort of negative, one which, it must be said, neatly played on the fears of the paper’s largely older, audience.

“Smelter upgrade will drain local tradie pool” …or words to that effect, was how readers of the Times were told of the something-something-million-dollar injection of foreign capital into their city and wider province the next morning.

The theory, according to ‘the paper,’ was that with all the work for chippies, sparkies and plumbers at the smelter you wouldn’t be able to find anyone to build you a conservatory, or – shock, horror- unblock your toilet, for love or money!

As it turned out, that story was the tipping point, the paper actually called to account by readers – and, no doubt, advertisers – and from what I understand, an ultimatum along the lines of ‘look, you negative bastards, there’s enough people out there happy to take pot shots at the place without ‘our’ paper leading the charge’ was issued.

Because I have spent my working life in the ‘media space’ I am probably more attuned to the role newspapers (used to anyway) TV, radio and magazines play in creating and/or sustaining a mood be it a positive or a negative one in a community.

Some fortunate individuals amongst us can operate completely independently of ‘the media,’ generating their own self-worth through (usually anyway) business, sport or a specific (usually religion-based) belief system.

Me? I can’t help but be both interested in, and influenced by, what I read, hear or see. These days, of course that means I am a voracious consumer of both old (newspapers, radio, TV etc) and new (the many and varied social platforms like Twitter and Facebook) media.

By and large the addition of this second (new media) way for people to consume news has been good for the south.

Sure, the place still gets pilloried by all and sundry when a southerly blows in and wreaks havoc on (let’s see, the annual ‘high-summer’ TRS round Teretonga, the annual Burt Munro Challenge motorcycle rally, and even the annual Bluff Oyster Festival).

But seriously, though changeable, Invercargill has a positively benign climate compared to cities which enjoy an easier run from visitors and locals alike, like…London, Paris, Berlin, Munich etc.

Yes I also know that one of the Rolling Stones famously called Invercargill the ‘arsehole on the world’ but really, I’d like to think that these days we are way less ‘provincial’ and ‘needy’ of the approval of those from ‘up over’ than we were when that comment was made ……way back in bloody 1964!!!!

In fact, if you want to see an example of how the new media is handing out a thrashing to the old just google upbeat community news site whatsoninvers.nz and compare it with the Aussie (Nine Entertainment Co.)-owned, Stuff-managed Southland Times newspaper.

Bled of staff and resources the ‘Times is but a shadow of its former self, locals chuckling when whole news sections are repeated in the next day’s edition, or the paper is beaten again to a local scoop by the Dunedin-owned Southland Express (a vibrant community tabloid published just once a week!)

Through all this negativity and change of course, lives have been led, money (a lot actually) has been made and members of the larger Richardson family have been beavering away, usually in the background but increasingly up front and in the full glare of the media spotlight, trying to make ‘their’ city a better place.

The biggest and most obvious contribution has been the investment in Bill Richardson Transport World, turning one man’s private collection of trucks into the largest (still privately owned) public transport museum of its type in the world.

That was Jocelyn O’Donnell (nee Richardson’s) idea and its success is very much a result of her vision.

The trucks her late Dad Bill built his multi-million dollar transport empire on are still the main attraction. But to this prosaic foundation Jocelyn has added a major collection of vintage Ford cars, a collection of her favoured Volkswagen Kombi camper vans and buses plus a mezzanine floor full of ‘World of Wearable Art ‘dresses at the front of house, and a couple of smaller, more prosaic ones (mezzanines) towards the back of the building.

These are dedicated to the sort of domestic appliances which will have those of a certain age going all misty-eyed as memories are triggered by powered roller lawn mowers (remember those?) and old-world agitator and roller washing machines.

The idea, originally, was to give tourist charter operators a reason to spend a night in the Deep South, to ‘complete a southern loop’ if you like, rather than simply bus these tourists in via Canterbury’s Southern Scenic Route from Fairlie and Lake Tekapo to Cromwell, Queenstown and Milford Sound then return them to Christchurch either back the way they came or via Alexandra, Lawrence and Dunedin.

Buoyed by the response from said tour operators – not to mention ordinary everyday local tourists – to Transport World, Jocelyn and husband Scott O’Donnell were quick to add a second major museum attraction to their portfolio when US millionaire Tom Sturgess and his wife Heather decided to put their Nelson-based collection of classic motorcycles up for sale.

Only too aware of the number of motorcycle riders from all over New Zealand, Australia and – more and more – the world, making the trip south – already – for the annual Burt Munro Challenge,  it didn’t take Jocelyn and Scott to put a hand up and say ‘yep, we’ll take them.’

Not, though, to add to ‘the show’ at Transport World.

Oh no. Scott had a better idea, bringing the 300+ collection of classic motorcycles right into the middle of town, to a building literally a stone’s throw from the intersection of the city’s two main thoroughfares, Tay and Dee Streets.

And so Classic Motorcycle Mecca – and as of a fortnight ago, the George Begg Bunker (so-named because it is in the basement of the building) – was born.

Looking to add a third unique attraction to their ‘offering’ to the modern breed of thrill-seeking tourist Scott literally tripped over an enterprising expat fellow Southlander, Ed Mumm, when he was in Las Vegas on business.

Mumm set up his first Dig This ‘heavy machinery playground’ (where, under controlled conditions, adults and even children get to ‘play’ with full size diggers, bulldozers and the like ) in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 2007 before taking the idea to Las Vegas in 2013….and according to Scott,  didn’t need much persuading to set up a branch in Invercargill.

I’ve yet to sample that particular attraction but trust me I will at some stage, because each time I’ve returned home these past few years (usually for the Classic Speedfest meeting) I’ve added an extra day to my schedule yet still left again feeling like I have only scratched the surface.

I was there four days this year for instance and am going to have to make it five – or perhaps even six in 2021.

Come 2022 I’m going to need even longer – because by then Scott and Jocelyn’s biggest project – effectively the complete demolition and rebuild of the city’s main ‘downtown block’ – should be ready to check out.

It’s going to be something else, too, because for years properties in the main Tay, Dee Esk and Kelvin Sts ‘block’ were owned by a passive UK investment fund…one which had absolutely zero interest in doing anything more than collecting the rent.

Having built up the H.W.Richardson Group to a point where he was happy both with its size and profitability, Scott O’Donnell eased himself out of an active role on the day-to-day management to concentrate his efforts on its property division, HWR Property Ltd.

HWR Property in turn, set up a joint venture, HWCP Management Ltd, with Invercargill City Property Ltd, part of an Invercargill City Council-owned investment enterprise called Holdco.

It was HWCP Management Ltd which bought the properties in the block from the passive investor, and is now well into the demolition phase before rebuilding what Scott describes as the city’s new ‘heart’

Needless to say, that through their unique background, vision and skills Jocelyn and Scott O’Donnell have gone a long way to injecting new life into the city they remain happy to call home.

Sure – as the cabbie who took me to the airport the Monday after the George Begg Classic Speedfest seemed to take great pleasure in pointing out – not everyone ‘in town’ is convinced. ‘Good luck with that,’ was his response when I tried to point out that any investment in the area whether it be by the O’Donnells or someone else, should surely be welcomed with open arms.

But I guess that human nature being what it is, it’s always going to be harder being a prophet in your hometown…

When I was growing up in Gore, Burt Munro, for instance, was a crotchety old goat us spotty-faced teens with our shiny new Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha trail bikes used to steer well clear of.

Yet look what a positive spin from movie director Roger Donaldson did for him.

George Begg, by all accounts, didn’t exactly suffer fools when he was at the height of his powers either.

Yet now, he is rightfully being remembered for what he achieved, for himself obviously, but also for his family, his province and for the state of the motor racing industry in this country.

As a kid I remember pestering the hell out of my poor mother, when I saw – in an ad in the Ensign newspaper – that George Begg was going to be the guest speaker at the local RSA’s next monthly ‘Housie Night.’

Though my late father had been a member, my tea-total mother was no great fan of the boozy reputation the local Reeza had. To her eternal credit, however, she managed to track down some old boy who was going and who – no doubt reluctantly – agreed to take me along.

These weren’t the days, of selfies, of course, nor was I the kind of confident kid who would thrust an autograph book (or more likely a sodden beer coaster) into the great man’s hand and demand his signature.

What I did do was hang on his every word, and resolve there and then to ‘do something in racing’ one day.

Year’s later I met George properly at a book launch here in Auckland and told him about that day.

Incredibly, he seemed as moved that what he had said that night had had such an effect on an impressionable kid as the kid (me) had been that night all those years ago.

So, you can probably imagine how I felt as I entered the ‘Bunker the Friday morning before the first Classic Speedfest named in his honour.

Not to mention when I saw the oversize scaffolding with the name of the meeting picked out in letters a metre-and-a-bit high just inside the main gate at Teretonga Park later that day.

That’s right. I felt proud of where I am from. Proud of my fellow Southlanders, proud of the province and proud that in my own small way I can play some part in countering some of the negativity that has blighted the place and the people who choose to make their lives there, for so long.

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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