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McConnell Dowell: Building bridges with the community

Making the community a key priority has ensured the Waitaki Bridges Replacement project was a resounding success. Mary Searle Bell explains.

pg-26-image-300x300px-1In 1881 two wooden bridges, meeting on Kurow Island mid-river, were built across the Waitaki River. They connected the communities of South Canterbury with Coastal Otago. Initially for rail, the bridges later opened for a single lane of traffic.

For 132 years they filled an important role, allowing the growth and development of the rural communities of Hakataramea and Kurow.

In recent times, the aging bridges were increasingly closed during high river flows or for repairs and maintenance. The route is important for tourism as well as freight, so in 2011 the NZ Transport Agency decided to replace them.

McConnell Dowell was engaged to manage the design, development, consenting and construction of the new bridges. The award-winning project has been hailed a resounding success by all involved – the client, contractors and the local community. And what made it so successful was the high level of community engagement, something McConnell Dowell made a key priority from day one.

McConnell Dowell construction manager Joe Edwards says it is company policy, when they go to a community, to become part of the community.

pg-26-image-300x300px-2“Our team lived in Kurow or nearby and we employed locals where possible,” he told Local Government Magazine. This close relationship was formalised in a partnering charter, signed by NZTA, Opus, McConnell Dowell, and Waitaki and Waimate district councils, with support from the Kurow Volunteer Fire Brigade, police, Kurow Beautification Group, Island Group and DOC.

The charter’s mission was to ‘provide a strategic link between two regions and local communities to create a legacy that respects the past and inspires the future’.

“We set pretty high goals with the community in mind,” says Joe. “We measured our performance against the charter throughout the project – we hit or bettered every target.”

Kurow is a tiny community, with a population of around 400, yet McConnell Dowell employed eight locals in the field workforce of about 15.

“We actively targeted those with little or no construction experience – we were happy to train them both formally and on site,” explains Joe. “We started carefully, with training in health and safety, working in confined spaces, etc. Then they were trained to work as a dogman, rigger and the like.

“Most of our local hires are still with us and some are onto their third or fourth job with McConnell Dowell.”

Throughout the project the local school had visits to the site, and engineers went to the school to give talks on bridge construction and careers in engineering.

A number of events were held during the project to celebrate various milestones, including the opening of each bridge. As the project was completed, a ‘final fling’ was organised – a family-friendly day out on Kurow Island, complete with food and market stalls, jet boat races, a tug-of-war, lolly scrambles and a contest to see who could build the best bridge out of spaghetti.

For the locals, aside from the new bridges themselves, one of the biggest benefits of the project was the construction of a new boat ramp on the island, which was built as an added-value item. This now gives the community the potential to host the national jet-boating championships, bringing a tourism and economic boost to the area.

Joe says the community also approached the team and asked them to help with constructing a cycle track around the island, which they did happily. So too when the local preschool asked for a little wooden bridge to be built in its playground.

“This kind of thing is really easy for us to do but meant a lot to the community,” says Joe.

As for the old bridges, their historic significance hasn’t been forgotten. Various materials from the original bridges were given to local projects – two spans have been incorporated in an historic display on Kurow Island, and timber from the bridges is being used as landscaping and architectural features in the town.

The museum was supplied with information, photos and a video record of the construction of the new bridges as well as the deconstruction of the old.

Feedback from locals is hugely positive – praising the high level of engagement and communication from the project team.

Sandy Cameron, from Wainui Station, Kurow, sings the praises of the team in a letter: “The community has felt embraced by the MacDow team and the community has embraced them. They have been quite exceptional and particularly good community people… It has been a totally happy and positive experience.”

  • Mary Searle Bell is a freelance writer and editor.

Main image:. Construction challenges over a fast flowing river.

  1. Waitaki Bridges project completed.
  2. Bridge & embankment under construction.

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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