Before COVID-19, Matt was playing professional rugby in Japan, but like many people, his life changed dramatically amid the global pandemic. He and his partner had returned home to visit New Zealand for a week as the country suddenly went into lockdown Alert Level 4, they found themselves unable to return and his rugby season cut short.

Now he’s one of many benefitting from a series of roading, infrastructure and environmental projects given an immediate cash injection from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) programme which is supporting a programme of work underway in Whakatāne.

Matt is now employed with local business Flow Plumbing working on the Kia Kaha Whakatāne project to upgrade water mains at Whakatāne Airport. “A lot of companies are really struggling. I am so fortunate to get this work as a plumber while we wait to have a chance to pack up our lives in Japan.”

Originally from Rotorua, he and his partner (of Tāneatua) had left everything behind in Japan except for their suitcases, and do not know when they will be able to return. He says gaining employment has brought some stability while adjusting to a new life in Whakatāne.

The Whakatāne Airport project has created work for a number of local contractors. Flow Plumbing owner, Jono Whitham, started the business two years ago – COVID-19 was his first major business hurdle to navigate.

“Like everyone, we were unsure of what was going to happen in the future due to COVID-19 – the whole world changed. It was a shock learning we were going into lockdown, I was a bit taken aback and had to have some frank conversations about retention of staff,” says Mr Whitham.

Flow Plumbing is one of many local businesses to gain confidence moving forward, as PGF funding is allocated to help speed up local projects and get people into jobs. Mr Whitham has been able to retain eight staff including two apprentices, recruiting Matt as one of his full-time team of plumbers.

“This has given us a foot in the door, and these projects have given us confidence going forward so we can concentrate on getting back on track. We can retain our employees, recruit new people, and like other contractors, where possible we source products locally to support the local economy — it’s about ensuring a circular economy and having businesses support each other,” Mr Whitham said. “Whakatāne District Council did a substantial amount to help us. They seem driven to help contractors.”

Mayor Judy Turner says the latest investment will equate to the equivalent of 160 full-time jobs in the next six weeks, with more than 100 jobs able to start immediately.

Devon Woodley is also a plumber at Flow, he joined the company in late 2019, and became a new father two weeks into lockdown with a baby girl. While he appreciated the time at home with his new family, he was grateful for projects coming through to kickstart the business again.

“We’re still punching through COVID-19 slowly, and we’ve all got mortgages and bills to pay – it warms a lot of people’s hearts knowing that the Council and the Government are prepared to spend money to get us moving again.”

The latest PGF funding boost comes on top of $38.6 million for a new boat harbour development, Riverfront Revitalisation project and the Kāinga development to transform the Whakatāne Army Hall into a vibrant destination for local, national and international visitors.