OPINION: The most underrated city in New Zealand is ready to step up, not just because it's well situated, sustainable and expandable, but because of its people, writes Tron champion Angela Cuming
When Steve Braunias took to the stage at the inaugural Hamilton Press Club on the banks of the mighty Waikato River last month he told the room of 100 or so of New Zealand's best and brightest journalists, broadcasters and writers that there could only ever be one home for the famed free media lunch: the Tron.
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''It's got initiative, it's got charm, it's got identity,'' Braunias told the room. "Only Hamilton could host the Press Club.''
After a three-course meal of gin-soaked salmon and seared Merino lamb rump the journos almost certainly agreed, but for those in the room like myself who are lucky enough to call Hamilton home we knew it was far more than the food or the free-flowing prosecco or indeed Braunias's snakeskin boots that made the event a success. The secret was, as the host himself said, that Hamilton is a wonderful city, thanks in large part to the people who choose to call it home.
I swapped Bondi Beach for Hamilton in 2011 and - except for a brief interlude in Northern Ireland - have been here ever since. I, as they say, #lovethetron, and it was of great delight but little surprise to learn that when Wintec pulled the financial plug on the old press club locals here in Hamilton quickly stepped in with offers of sponsorship (thank you Brian Squair and Chow:Hill Architects) and help to get the famed event back up and running.
''Hamilton is a cool place,'' Braunias told RNZ's Mediawatch.
''There's a real flavour about that place, it's the reason why all these years people have come such distances [to Press Club], from Wellington, Australia, and even Invercargill''.
But could Hamilton, New Zealand's fourth largest city and its most rapidly growing one, be the country's next capital?
Of course it could. It's geographically well-placed, enjoys excellent weather compared to its southern cousins, and is well serviced by major arterial roads and an airport that can easily cope with the demands of domestic and international travellers. Hamilton's also got a lot of room to grow - literally - compared to Wellington. Its property prices, though not exactly cheap, are enviable compared to Auckland.
There's a lot to draw visitors to Hamilton, too. There's the stunning Hamilton Gardens, named International Garden of the Yearat the 2014 Garden Tourism Awards and, despite the best efforts of Hamilton Mayor Andrew King, remain free of charge for all to visit.
Then there's the Waikato River, described by Braunias himself as ''wide and deep and beautiful''.
There are moves afoot in Hamilton to turn the city around to face the river, with developments and urban renewal planned to make the most of the city's riverside location.
So yes, Hamilton is an amazing city and somewhere I am proud to call home yet still every time I read articles trumpeting its readiness to be proclaimed NZ's next capital city I mentally cover my eyes with my hands and turn a blushing shade of Waikato red. The calls for the Tron to be recognised better on the national stage, though well-meaning, often are ripped straight from the Tim Shadbolt playbook of civic pride.
What makes Hamilton so great are the things that will never meet KPIs for economic strategists or town planners. Rather they are the things that weave together the rich tapestry of life in the Tron. Things like the citizen-led activation of Garden Place to silently but very publicly protest the Hamilton City Council's plan to put car parking spaces in the public square. There a book exchange was built and installed, a guerrilla petanque tournament held, a NZ Book Fairy picnic held, all without help (or indeed cooperation) from the Council. There's other important stuff going on, too, like the better beer, and coffee and food than Wellington (fight me), the thriving arts scene, the street art that doesn't include murals of Ed Sheeran.
There's a growing, almost zealous interest in local politics, especially among the city's younger residents. Hamilton is a student town, there's Waikato University and Wintec, and it's also a city primed for young families to move to and, more crucially, stay put.
And while the local councillors may not yet mirror the diversity of the people they are charged to represent that too will change sooner rather than later. Earlier this year a by-election was held and Samoan woman Meleane Burgess came tantalisingly close to being the first Pasifika person elected to Hamilton Council. And in 2019 the mayoral race is almost certain to include local councillor Angela O'Leary, who has led a campaign to end the sexist, misogynistic comments and foul language in the Council chambers.
When Jacinda Ardern recently proposed a toast to the future of the Commonwealth during a state dinner hosted by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, she quoted that famous whakataukī: "What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people."
Sitting at my home in Hamilton East with my three little boys I was moved by Ardern's choice of words and understood immediately why she had used them. Ardern is a Waikato girl through and through. And, like the rest of us here, she too knows the secret to Hamilton's overall success is not whether it becomes the country's next capital. No, Hamilton's success will rest on the shoulders of its people, and, just quietly, I think they have got this one.
Angela Cuming is a print and radio journalist