Room at the inn
The Tolaga Bay Inn is one of the the district’s most iconic buildings. The original was built over 100 years ago, and now the inn is moving into a new era. Shaan Te Kani gets an insight into the new developments.
The “ahi kaa”, the people who keep the home fires burning, are the heart of any small rural town.
And the saying could not be more true for the East Coast township of Uawa, Tolaga Bay.
One of many places in the area which has kept the community spirit alive, and been a gathering place for the people, is the iconic Tolaga Bay Inn.
It is one of the last remaining historic hotels on the East Coast.
The original hotel was built in 1886, but was destroyed years later in a fire. It was rebuilt in 1930.
Now, the grandest ole girl in town is about to undergo a major revamp, an exciting new project that is centred on the community she serves.
The kaitiaki of the inn, and driver of the redevelopment project is Lily Stender, who says there are two main threads to the project — restoration and preservation, and community development.
She acquired the inn in 2011, returning to her mother’s homeland of Tolaga Bay.
At the time, making money was not the driver. It was about reconnecting with whanau.
But business was struggling.
Lily’s brother and businessman Kamil Stender, with the help of former All Black Rico Gear, were able to put down a deposit on the business.
East Coast local Tony King also invested to help keep it afloat.
The need for renovations brought a challenging $5 million price tag, causing Lily and others in the community to transfer the inn into a charitable trust — protecting it from private ownership.
'Our mission is to restore and preserve the inn'“We had dreams of restoration. But we thought ‘how do we do that?’,” says Lily.
“So, we put her into a trust, and whatever happens in it is for the benefit of the community.
“Our mission is to restore and preserve the inn by utilising her as a vehicle for economic, social and cultural development in our community.
“It is our turn to give back to her as she has serviced our community for over 130 years. We acknowledge everyone who has walked this journey before us.
“We also see that we can create opportunities for our people, by developing a hub for tourism, social enterprise, education, and digital technology initiatives.
“The inn will still remain a pub too. It must. This has long been a place where people have come to gather to socialise, and people need a place to do that.
“But in order to be able to preserve her, we needed to come up with an innovative project based on a vision for our community going forward.”
Initiatives for the hub include an in-house information centre, tourism experiences and a place to showcase arts and crafts of local people.
The Tolaga Bay Inn Charitable Trust has also aligned with several key organisations to provide training opportunities — Eastern Institute of Technology, SuperGrans, Digital Wings, Stepping Up and the 20/20 Trust.
The information centre looks to provide historical information and stories of the region, and become an iconic magnet for tourists. It will promote local tourism packages and showcase the local Maori culture — through arts, crafts and heritage trails.
As an educational centre, the inn has already provided in-house training through EIT for hospitality, marae cookery and Level 3 Food and beverage courses. They are also working at developing further tourism and hemp certification training.
In addition, there are plans for digital technology learning to get under way in the next month at the information centre, particularly in the area of coding, social media and video editing.
A portal for social enterprise will aim to assist local entrepreneurs and sole traders to build and develop their businesses.
A major part of that strategy is tourism, with three local Tolaga Bay businesses already lined up. They include eeling tours, horse whisperer workshops, crayfish and fishing tours.
It has been a long journey to get to this point, but the fruits of the community’s labour are starting to shine through.
“We’ve been on this journey for seven years. I truly believe in it,” says Lily. “Opportunities are coming our way now. It has involved a lot networking and collaboration with others.
“We know we can’t do this on our own. It is imperative we link up with other like-minded people, and we have achieved this through business partnerships.”
Activate Tairawhiti, Eastland Community Trust, the New Zealand Lotteries Board and New Zealand Trade and Enterprise have all put their hand up to support the restoration and development initiatives.
The trust has also partnered with other groups within the tourism, social enterprise, IT and educational initiatives it is focused on.
The trust is one of 10 organisations selected to be part of ‘Ta Koha’, the first Maori crowdfunding campaign, which will be launched at the end of the month.
The trust has also been chosen as one of 19 organisations to be part of Akina, a New Zealand contingent that will attend a social enterprise world forum in Scotland.
The inn will be the first pilot business to roll out technology created by Maori IT company Straker Translations.
All menus, signage and information will be provided in both English and Maori.
Even with outside assistance, the project cannot go forward without the ‘ahi kaa’, the home people, says Lily.
“We acknowledge all of those who have gone before us and those who continue to support the inn today. We also have our next generation coming through, so it’s about making this a place for them too. It’s all about empowering our own people.”
One of the trust members and proud local woman who fully supports the project is Dolly Mitchell.
“I 100 percent support this restoration journey of our inn. It’s a community building and this is a community project. It is a family-friendly place.”
Tena Baker, who is leading the digital technology strategy agrees.
“It’s going to be an enormous job, but it can be done,” she says.
“Uawa has proven it before, with the restoration of our wharf and memorial gates.
“This is a plan that has real outcomes. It is about uplifting the community and adding value.”