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Time for a new story to assist in Covid recovery

Gisborne District Council, the regional economic development agency and local businesses need to work together to “write a new story” to recover from the economic impacts of Covid-19, New Zealand Chambers of Commerce director Michael Barnett says.

Speaking at the Gisborne Chamber of Commerce annual meeting (on Zoom) last month, Mr Barnett discussed how much work both New Zealand and Australian chambers of commerce were doing to help create a job-rich business environment, and also urged members to press the District Council to help by reducing commercial rates and business costs.

Mr Barnett said he had worked with many international chambers over the past few months and had been planning with Australian members for the reopening of borders.

“I have also worked with a range of regional tourism organisations in Australia, who are keen to get the borders open. At our first meeting a few weeks ago, I talked about reopening the borders around September and the Australians came straight back at me and said, ‘why so late?'

“So, you can see where they are coming from, and it's encouraging to be working with them.

“I think the one thing the chambers have in common is our ‘why', and the why we are here is to try to create the best platform from which business can operate. What this means is as chambers we work with local government, central government, we work with other organisations but we work for you and for your business. Most importantly, we act.”

Mr Barnett said that had included a huge range of work with the Ministry of Social Development to help with the establishment of the Government's Covid-19 wage subsidy.

“MSD did a brilliant job and if any of our members applied for the subsidy and didn't get it within the first few days, we were able to be the chasers and find out where it was and how quickly our members would receive their wage subsidy.”

At that point the Auckland chamber, of which he is chief executive, was receiving about 150 calls a day just around the wage subsidy.

However, Mr Barnett said he would have liked to see more done around reducing commercial rents during the lockdown.

“There were some good landlords out there but there were also the other sort.

“As a landlord ourselves, we turned round immediately and gave 50 percent discount for a couple of months — but there were a lot of landlords who didn't respond, and in fact, responded badly.

“So, we did a lot of work there, trying to get the Government to intervene. We weren't successful but we certainly made a lot of noise about it.”

Another important piece of work the chamber had been doing was around the growing importance of the trading relationship with Australia.

“There are tens of thousands of small businesses who could be doing business with Australia and are not. So, we've developed a platform that you can go on and register your business and business services. We have the Australian chamber network doing the same, so you will be able to self-match.”

That platform was now ready for release, Mr Barnett said. (See: www.transtasmantrade.com)

“Job-zone”, a free online platform, had also been developed to service job-rich communities and people looking for employment.

“When we have 1000 people a day going on to the benefit, we have an issue coming up and we will be ready to help deal with that.”

Mr Barnett also urged businesses to ignore “today's constraints” when looking to the post-Covid future.

“Look at it, be visionary and look at what you can do, not what you can't.”

As part of that he urged the Gisborne chamber to carry out an audit of all those who had ever been a member to create a “State of the Gisborne Nation” idea. That would show what and who were under threat, and what the region could do to improve or change that.

“This is a time for everyone to work together.”

He also suggested councils should reduce rents as well as commercial rates or business differentials.

“We all know that what SMEs don't have to pay to government or councils will help them survive and it will be money they spend in their communities . . . and some of that is going to be on employment.”

Mr Barnett said it would be important for Gisborne District Council to purchase local and stimulate employment.

“It is about quality expenditure, not the nice-to-have.

“When you have a look at Gisborne, I can sit down and look at photos and know the story of your region but I have to say it's probably time to write a new story. Don't make it a pitch like an advertising pitch — tell them your story that's going to attract the people who are out there . . . the people who have just got their country back — they can move around the country easier, they can be a visitor easier.

“Tell them a story to attract them to your region.”

chamber AGM GUEST SPEAKER: Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO and New Zealand Chambers of Commerce director Michael Barnett. Picture supplied