More change for Central Otago?

With no idea of the power he held in his hands, 157 years ago Gabriel Read pulled gold from an Otago gully which today bears his name.

He arrived at Port Chalmers in 1861, following the discovery of gold in Southland. There were whispers of gold being present in Otago too, but it was his discovery which turned the vast and largely uninhabited Central Otago into an economic behemoth.

The gold brought crowds, riches and infrastructure and left in its wake villages, towns and, in the case of Dunedin, one of the wealthiest cities in the Southern Hemisphere. While the land is still mined, horticulture abounds and tourists are common, the gold rush's end was the end of Central Otago as an economic powerhouse.

Through the development of ski fields, Queenstown pivoted from summer holiday village to thriving miniature city. Dunedin, thanks to its location, infrastructure and facilities, has remained a major centre. Southland has continued to eke ever-increasing productivity from its fertile fields.

Central Otago, though, has often been seen largely as a staging post between the coast and the mountains; its potential overlooked, underappreciated, or unachievable.

But there are signs it is taking off. Last week's report on a proposed development in Alexandra hints at what might be around the corner for Central Otago.

A replica miners' village and New Zealand's first free outdoor water slide are proposed in a $3.4million development on the town's riverside. Neither the plans nor the budget is grandiose, but the fact they exist now, at this point in New Zealand's growth, may be significant.

Some 15 years ago Auckland's population explosion took off. Perhaps it was the global fear of big international cities becoming terrorism targets; perhaps it was the exposure provided by successive America's Cup regattas; or perhaps Auckland itself reached a critical mass where what it offered was deemed enough by a plethora of new arrivals.

Whatever the reason, history shows people came, house prices rose and nearby towns and cities absorbed the overflow. Tauranga was first, Hamilton followed and a number of nearby towns became commuter hubs.

The overflow has since spread further afield, of course, as Dunedin's recent population rise shows. The regions are growing, money is flowing into them and opportunity is being painted on to areas recently seen as little more than abandoned.

Central Otago's climate, history and size provides by far the most continental location in the country. It offers opportunities and lifestyles other parts of New Zealand cannot match, in an environment the world is clamouring to enjoy.

It is easy to imagine developments like that proposed for Alexandra's riverside snowballing. It's possible major airlines will increase their demands for a new, modern airport in the middle of the South - something Central Otago could well accommodate.

It is easy to imagine transport links vastly improving, employment growth outstripping supply and the dry, cold, inhospitable winters becoming a quirk to be celebrated from the comfort of modern cars and homes, rather than a factor to be feared.

Growth brings both benefits and problems, and should only be sought alongside sober heads and clever plans. Yet, in a free society like ours it is very hard to stop.

With Dunedin prospering, the Queenstown Lakes region arguably growing too fast, Southland consistently performing and New Zealand remaining one of the world's most desired countries, it seems likely Central Otago is on the cusp of a new age of investment, growth and prosperity.

What has long been to some degree in-between may again become a premier destination; for workers, tourists, fortune seekers and families.

Just as in 1881 Gabriel Read would barely have recognised the land he strode into 20 years earlier, so too, in 20 years, we may see a vastly different Central Otago - for better and for worse - to that which has been so familiar for so long.

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