Alistar Sowman

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Relinquishing the chains of mayoralty

BY LYNDA PAPESCH

The voting is done and dusted, a new mayor is in training in Marlborough, and the former mayor is enjoying a new lease on life. That’s nothing new for ex-Marlborough mayor Alistair Sowman; he’s re-invented himself numerous times already during almost three score years and 10.

Having devoted himself to the people and region of Marlborough for more than a decade, Sowman decided not to stand for re-election last month and to instead devote more of his time to new ventures.

A Marlburian to the core, he was born and bred in the region and can trace his ancestors back to the first settlers there in the 1860s. Those early settlers set up a funeral parlour and today – although not in the family any more – the business still bears the Sowman name.

The eldest of three sons born to Geoffrey T Sowman and his wife Rita (nee Ashton), Sowman ‘did time’ in the family business, working with his parents. “I remember I was considered quite young to be a funeral director,” he laughs. His younger brothers Philip and Terry Sowman also worked in the family business at various times, and, like Alistair, they too still live in Marlborough with their families.

Young he may have been, but his time in the funeral business taught him many things that stood him in good stead for his time on council; things like empathy and how to relate to people. “What I learned then had a huge influence in the latter years, especially helping me to understand people.”

From tending the dearly departed, he moved to tending garlic, forming Wairau Products in 1970 to grow and export garlic. Self-taught, Sowman built his business up to be New Zealand’s major exporter of garlic, pioneering new markets throughout the Pacific and eventually putting his expertise into working for all of Marlborough’s garlic growers.

In the early ‘80s, his life expanded to include a wife and later a family. Thelma was at that time a Marlburian living and working overseas. He met her while she was home on a family visit. “I persuaded her to stay and the rest is history.”

The couple’s son Ben now lives on Australia’s Gold Coast – proud parent to their grandson– while daughter Jessie calls Wellington home.

In addition to growing and selling garlic, Sowman diversified into valued added products, including a highly successful garlic sauce which he marketed throughout New Zealand. So popular did it prove to be, that the company making the sauce decided to buy the recipe.

The move into local body politics came via a gym buddy who was a former mayor herself. “I first stood for council – and was elected – in 2001. My gym buddy at that time was former mayor Liz Davidson and we often talked local body politics. I also had an uncle who was a former deputy mayor, and with a growing interest in local government I was persuaded to stand.”

Aged 54 when first elected, Sowman served three years as a councillor under then mayor Tom Harrison before deciding to tilt at the top job himself.

“Back then Marlborough was buzzing with issues such as the damage the interisland ferries were causing to the Marlborough Sounds, and there was a lot of dissension about new foreshore and seabed legislation.

“We received a barrage from Government at the time. The then deputy prime minister, now Sir Michael Cullen, was not complimentary either to the council or to Mayor Harrison.”

His first term on council was also marked by heated exchanges around the council table. The mayor had his views of the world and councillors often disputed them vigorously. As a result, Sowman was encouraged towards the end of his first term to “put my hat in the ring for the 2004 mayoralty”.

He was elected, then re-elected another three times before deciding to stand down this year, ending a local body career as the longest serving Marlborough District Council (MDC) mayor. Former Blenheim Borough Council mayor, the late Sid Harling, served 15 years at the top of what was a predecessor to the MDC.

From the outset, Mayor Sowman had a particular style of governance. “I started out being a consensus mayor because I felt it was important to work as a team. Egos had to be left at the door; there was no room at the council table for prima donnas! Consensus is my preferred style of leadership. I am first and foremost an advocate for Marlborough, and I have always tried to do what is in the best interests of all ratepayers and residents – not particular sectoral interests.”

His second term as mayor was spent with three previous mayors all sitting councillors. “People thought it would be difficult to work together, but it worked well. They were all mature local body politicians with a good grasp of what was needed so we all got on with the business at hand.”

Council changed during his third term although it was still ‘harmonious’, he says, unlike his last term which was fraught with councillors working for their own ends and having their own agendas and ambitions. That, and his 70th birthday looming in April next year, convinced Sowman that the time was right to put more time into other areas of community involvement.

During his mayoralty, he has been a determined lobbyist in the fight to maintain good health services in Marlborough, which has led to him being appointed chairman of the PHO, chairman of the governance group of the Children’s Team in Marlborough and Chairman of Community Law Marlborough. That’s where he plans to focus his future energies.

“I’m comfortable – and proud – of what I have achieved during my terms, especially as Marlborough has seen major changes during that time. I am particularly proud that we’ve gone a long way to future-proofing the region. The financial balance sheet looks good, council has low debt and it has prudent management which is always a strong base.”

His tenure has not been without controversy, natural disasters and the occasional disappointing result, but interspersed with those have been many successes.

“Early on in my mayoralty we had a scare with contamination of the Blenheim water. We bit the bullet at the time and installed a new treatment plant at considerable cost. That proved to be a very good decision.”

Looking back he sees a good mix of core projects and social infrastructure having been achieved; projects such as the Picton foreshore redevelopment, Blenheim’s  stadium and aquatic centre, the Endeavour Park Pavilion in Picton, the Giesen Centre in Renwick and the $420 million plus Southern Valleys Irrigation Scheme. On the infrastructure success list are multi-million dollar sewerage and storm water upgrades in Blenheim and Picton and Blenheim’s water treatment.

Helping to fund the improvements have been ratepayer assets such as the port company, forestry and residential land. During Sowman’s 12 years as mayor, dividends from those assets have exceeded $60 million, enabling several major projects which would otherwise not have proceeded without expensive loans and rates rises.

One highlight for Sowman was the royal visit by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Catherine in 2014, and the international exposure for Marlborough that accompanied it. He’s also proud of the province’s 2015 World War One commemorations, and its own 150th anniversary celebrations.

He’s also exited the mayoralty on a controversial note with dissension over council funding of the new ASB Theatre Marlborough. Strong debate over public amenities is nothing new to him, and, as he explains, if  it was up to the detractors in Marlborough there would be no aquatic centre, no stadium and definitely no new theatre. He also points out that the only ratepayer funds used are $390,000 annually for operating costs, which equates to $18 per ratepayer per year. Capital costs all came from the reserves fund.

Overall he believes Marlborough is well positioned to grow sustainably while building a prosperous future. “Council has been ‘extremely careful’ to ensure land and services are steadily coming on stream at a pace which the region can handle. At the same time we have completed a decade of research into resource management issues delivered up through our new Marlborough Environment Plan.”

His own future includes serving the community by looking out for its health needs, and hopefully a bit more involvement with cricket and golf. Sowman represented Marlborough at squash and cricket including time as captain of the Marlborough cricket team. “I’m not curling up my toes just yet.”