The ambitious $14m plan to create a world-class primary industries education centre at Mt Albert Grammar School has taken a major step forward with a substantial grant allowing the appointment of a manager to lead the next stage of the project.
The grant from the Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust (Agmardt) has allowed the project advisory committee to recruit a development manager to handle a broad range of issues over the next two years. The position was advertised over the summer and an appointment will be disclosed soon.
Agmardt, established by the Government in 1987 with funds of $32m from the wind-up of the British, Christmas Island and New Zealand Phosphate Commissions, invests millions each year with the aim of exploring market opportunities, encouraging innovative ideas and developing future leaders.
The appointment will allow the committee to step back a little as the new manager works on stakeholder engagement, curriculum development and fundraising – leading right through to the first concrete pour.
The “experience centre” on the existing farm land at the school will have five new classrooms and will feature special bays – almost like super-modern squash courts with elevated viewing – equipped with robotic milking technology, and fibre technology showing how wool is transformed into modern textiles. There will be a vineyard, a hydroponics building and a sheep-shearing facility – all powered by solar energy – where students will learn animal handling, dairy and horticulture production, food preparation and science. A walk-through video of the proposal shows the scale and outlay of the centre.
At the moment, MAGS caters for 150 students who opt for primary industry courses. The new centre will expand the curriculum, pushing that figure to 500, and the school is seeking special dispensation to allow it to take most of those extra students from outside its zone.
The vision extends beyond secondary school students, too, with a broad plan to give primary pupils the chance to visit the centre and understand where food comes from.
The overall aim is as simple as it is ambitious: to provide an urban centre of educational excellence to produce some of the 50,000 primary industries workers needed over the next decade or so. And it’s not all about milking cows or shearing sheep – think science, technology, marketing, sales, logistics and a range of other disciplines offering a pathway to a future in primary industries.
The project is already reasonably well advanced, with a business plan, consents and initial design in place.
Now, as project advisory committee chair Mark Heer explains, the next stage is “the main funding push”, and once some certainly is reached on the success of that, the move to the final design. Then the build.
The funding target is $10m, which will cover the physical cost of the buildings, with an added $2m as an endowment fund for ongoing costs.
The fundraising initiative is five-pronged and covers trusts and endowments, wealthy individuals, the Government, companies operating in the ag-science sector and ordinary people who want to support the concept. In its search for funds the committee has published a prospectus seeking expressions of interest and is likely to find support among big corporates with connections to the fields of agriculture, horticulture and agribusiness who will see value in a close association with the centre.
Timing? Mr Heer says “2020 would be a good year to deliver the project to the school”, but it all depends on how the main thrust of the fundraising goes.
It may take nine months to a year for the design to be refined, contracts to be let and project managers to be appointed – with a nine-month build following that. A physical start in mid- or late-2019 would have the project completed by the end of 2020, but it could easily drift into 2021 if there are delays or funding hiccups.
In the end, though, the school will have a “farm experience centre” that’s unique in this country – in place as MAGS celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2022.