In late 2020 the Ashburton i-SITE information centre building rolled off in style to start the next chapter in its life as the new clubrooms for the Mid Canterbury Aero Club.
This familiar building was the second of its kind, and its departure marked the end of an era for East Street and the CBD as a new era of redevelopment began. The adoption of the i-SITE by the MCAC aligns with the tradition of the building. It has long been used by different organisations, and it will surely serve them as well as it has served the town and district while on site.
To fully appreciate the impact the i-SITE and the previous information centre made for us, we need to go back to 1970 and to the inaugural meeting of the Ashburton Chamber of Commerce’s public relations committee.
Focus on tourism
Before the creation of the public relations committee, Ashburton was regarded as a good place for an ice cream or a pie as you travelled through and not much else.
The idea of a public relations committee came from the Ashburton Chamber of Commerce, and the first meeting of this committee in 1970 was chaired by the mayor Darcy Digby, with representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, the Electric Power Board, and the Licensing Trust in attendance. The committee’s aims laid the foundation of what the information centre and associated organisations would stand for: to promote the district to visitors and to attract new businesses to the area. The committee printed brochures, established a public relations office, and otherwise played things slow for much of its infancy.
In 1986, the committee adopted a new name: the Ashburton Promotions Association. The following year, Pauline Wilson was appointed promotions officer with funding of $10,000 from the Borough and County Councils. She spent much of her time familiarising herself with the local tourism and hospitality industries, while recruiting businesses for the Promotions Association.
At this time there was talk of an information centre being established on East Street, a project which had the support of the Kiwanis Club of Ashburton, and in April 1988 it was given the go-ahead. The Kiwanis Club were shovel-ready on the 23rd of July, and less than three months later on the 14th of October 1988 the information centre was officially opened by Ashburton MP Jenny Shipley.
The information centre was a huge success.
Benefiting heavily from Pauline’s enthusiasm and the dedication of dozens of volunteers, the centre provided a very helpful and personal experience to locals and travellers alike. The Ashburton Guardian reported in a 1995 feature that during the previous year the information centre received more than 10,000 inquiries, many being from overseas tourists.
The centre had some very busy days indeed. On the 8th of January 1996, the centre had 100 visitors pass through its doors, about a quarter of those being from abroad. In May 1996 it was reported that the information centre received a $7000 grant from the New Zealand Lotteries Board for expansion to give more room for volunteers and visitors. Work started on the 14th of August to extend the front of the building by two metres at a cost of $11,000, which was mainly covered by the grant and the rest was made up by the Promotions Association.
The centre was on the cutting edge when it came to technology. In December 1997 it was reported by the Courier that they were adopting an ‘Info To Go’ computer terminal which contained volumes of information about the district at the click of a button.
Throughout the early 2000s, there was much talk about a new site for the information centre.
It seems that the railway station was considered a good candidate for the relocation, as well as Baring Square East opposite the clock tower, the previous Art Gallery and Museum building, and the existing site. It took much deliberation and consultation over a three year period before it was decided in July 2003 that ultimately, the information centre would keep its existing spot. Regarding the decision, information centre manager Jenny Jordan commented: “That’s all we really wanted in the first place,” as the main concern of the staff was that they needed toilets and hot water on-site which they did not previously have.
On the 23rd of November 2004, the Courier reported that the contract to build the new information centre was awarded to Bradford Building. While the new centre was under construction, the old building continued to operate at a temporary site. On the 29th of June 2005, the new information centre was opened by Rt Hon Helen Clark, and in September the old building was shifted.
The information centre continued to serve the community for years until Experience Mid Canterbury announced in 2017 that it was closing for good.
Since the centre’s closure the building had sat dormant until December 2020, as it was saved by the Mid Canterbury Aero Club and it now serves the community once again in its new life.
By Connor Lysaght
This article was modified for this blog and originally appeared in the Ashburton Guardian, 12 December 2020.
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