Towns Built by Business

Family-run for the best part of a century, Sleepyhead is among the nation’s most loved and trusted brands—with polls to prove it—and like any responsible clan, it cares for its kin. In July, the mattress-makers announced plans to shift their manufacturing south from Auckland to Ohinewai as part of a $1 billion project that will include the creation of a new settlement of affordable housing for up to 3,000 residents, and a new factory that will create 1,500 jobs.

Parent company Comfort Group has snapped up the 176-hectare rural Waikato block, 5km north of Huntly, with plans to build more than 1,000 homes averaging under $500,000, while the state-of-the-art factory promises to more than triple its current manufacturing space to 100,000sqm. Director Craig Turner says that they expect other companies to join their “community-based programme” that will prevent residents from having to divert their commuting petrol money towards “buying their homes and things they really want to have”. The idyllic location, he tells the Herald, rich in resources, is ideal for “water activities and cycle trails and walkways”.

 

NZ Builds

New Zealand was, of course, built upon the concept of such ‘model villages’ or ‘company towns’. According Te Ara, it was Captain William Hobson, way back in 1839, who first floated the idea of “East India Company-style ‘factories’ as the best way to settle New Zealand”. Though Aotearoa’s first official town was Kororareka—now Russell—in the Bay of Islands, Wellington was to be the original settlement of the New Zealand Company, a London-based entity whose founder, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, envisioned a series of farming-funded hubs. The 1840s saw the development of such company towns as Whanganui, Nelson, New Plymouth, Dunedin and Christchurch—all still familiar and thriving centres, but some of the most profitable have long since ceased.

For nearly half a century Waiuta, near Greymouth, served as the company town for a gold mine that was not just South Island’s largest, but one of the most reliable in the whole world. Second world war enlistment halved the workforce, compounded by a collapsed shaft and flood from which the mine never fully recovered. By the early 1950s, it was a ghost town. Tokomaru, a dairy hub in Eastland suffered a similar fate. Denniston on South Island’s West Coast sat atop one of Aotearoa’s largest coal seams. Founded in the late 19th century, the hub was once home to 2,000 souls, but the closure of the local pub, Red Dog Saloon, in the 1960s marked the end of the mining industry there. Today, its population barely numbers a dozen, but it remains a tourist draw.

 

Investments Overseas

In this writer’s home city of Birmingham stands one of the world’s most enduring model villages, Bournville, a community built by the Cadbury family in 1879 to house the workers of their chocolate factory. The Second City suburb still has no pubs, as was the wish of the Cadbury’s, who were Quakers, the only exception now being, somewhat paradoxically, the Cadbury factory’s social club.

Similarly in the US, in 1900 Milton Hershey founded a community for the staff of his chocolate factory in rural Pennsylvania. The state-of-the-art company town contained public schools, an amusement park and a zoo, as well as streets named after products and ingredients. Like at the original Cadbury factory, chocolate is still made there today.

According to the Economist, during the peak era of company towns around one hundred years ago, they housed three percent of the US population. Now social media companies with more cash than some small nations are developing plans for their own versions of such settlements. Facebook are leading the charge, in February announcing an update on their 2017 proposed redevelopment, Willow Village, in California’s Menlo Science & Technology Park.

 

Contemporary Company Towns

“The main lesson for Facebook and other tech titans that are mulling worker housing is that company towns should be investments for the future,” writes Zach Mortice for City Lab, “not just temporary fixes for an immediate problem—Silicon Valley’s acute affordable housing crisis.”

In response to such observations, Facebook have “made specific enhancements including a new Main Street and Town Square designed for walking, biking, retail, and social gathering”. The tech giant adds that Willow Village will replace the current “outdated one-million-square-foot single-use industrial and warehouse complex with much-needed housing, grocery store, pharmacy, local shops, restaurants, offices, public parks and open space for all to enjoy”. Among the 1,500 apartment homes will be 225 “affordable units”.

Google has announced plans for an even larger model village in nearby Mountain View that will contain around 8,000 new homes having already spent over US$2.8 billion on local properties in recent years. “We also want to see the area transformed into what the City calls ‘Complete Neighborhoods’,” writes Google’s Mountain View development director, Michael Tymoff, “with a focus on increasing housing options and creating great public places that prioritize people over cars.”

The Sleepyhead development might not carry quite such clout, but promises to connect people just the same. Acknowledging Craig Turner and his team’s passion for the project, Mayor of the Waikato District, Allan Sanson, says that it’s not simply about establishing a factory, but “building a community” while creating “a powerful and compelling story about helping the less privileged”.