2011: Welcome to a new year

And so a new year begins. Many people in Otago and the South Island will be wishing that 2011 can be better than 2010.

Economically speaking - and after all, the economy is the foundation of jobs and prosperity - last year was difficult.

Recovery from the worldwide recession has been slow, uncertain and patchy, and many retailers must wonder where their next transaction will come from.

Margin trimming and sales throughout 2010 became commonplace.

The pressure has been unrelenting across the board, including on big items such as cars and houses.

The realisation that individuals, families and the country have been living beyond their means has been striking home, and people are reluctant to spend freely.

Efforts to reduce household debt, a long grind for many, have begun.

Similarly, local authority councillors and mayors - notably in Dunedin and Queenstown - have finally recognised the need for frugality and hard spending choices after seemingly believing that money could be spent with abandon.

Manufacturers, especially those carrying hefty debt loads, have also struggled. Receiverships have been too common.

Overall, nevertheless, the province and the country have survived better than the stressed nations of Europe like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland.

Mortgage foreclosures are still infrequent and unemployment rates have not soared.

It could have been a lot worse.

The year, though, was emotionally miserable for many because of southern disasters, each of which had impact on Otago despite being centred elsewhere.

The Canterbury earthquake shook a city and province, and the physical and psychological damage will take years to repair.

A devastating spring storm then killed up to 1.5 million southern lambs. While the worst direct effects were in Southland, they also spread through South Otago. The loss of farmer income, processing work and on-flowing exports means the wider community also suffers.

The South Island's terrible trifecta was completed with the Pike River Coal mine explosions.

The total of 29 deaths in one underground mine in a single incident in a close-knit region left the nation bewildered and reeling.

At least Otago can be thankful that dairy prices rebounded.

The industry, it is now claimed, brings in $1.5 billion to the southern economy and employs 4200 people.

Tourism also held up remarkably well, despite the strong New Zealand dollar against the United States and European currencies.

Australians came in their droves, and Australia's resilience and Asian growth helped keep New Zealand from washing into the direst of straits.

Continued expansion of the University of Otago underpinned Dunedin, while also underlining the city's vulnerability to one massive industry, and a taxpayer-funded one at that.

Notably, too, the improving year for the commercial construction sector was largely built on the ratepayer and university, and not private money.

Disappointing was the loss of domestic airline competition out of Dunedin with the departure of Pacific Blue.

The people of the South can be proud of their staunch and vigorous response to the threat to Dunedin-based neurosurgery, and they can be thrilled by the outcome.

As well as providing an essential emergency service, neurosurgery is fundamental both to an effective tertiary hospital and to the medical school, together necessary for Dunedin and Otago's future.

The solace of sport, however, was largely denied Otago.

Although outstanding individuals topped the world - Alison Shanks, Hamish Bond, Adam Hall - the year could well be remembered for the dismal showing of the rugby team. Surely, the stock cannot sink any lower than bottom of 14.

No Otago representative teams in other leading sports had particularly memorable seasons, although the success of North Otago in cricket and rugby should be recognised.

As Otago faces another challenging year, it is as well to remember the province's priceless attractions - its beauty, its space, its liveable climate, its agricultural base, its history and its heart.

These characteristics are worth recalling and emphasising as we meet the challenges of 2011.

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