The selling of Whitianga’s Health Factory in Coghill Street opens a new chapter in the life of owner Noel Hewlett, as developer, Philip Leather, takes over the premises on 22 June. Mr Leather told The Mercury Bay Informer he was land-banking the building and has no plans for it at this stage.
The building has been Noel’s passion for the past 30 years. The complex includes Coghill Theatre, which is the home of Offbeat Theatre’s productions. It also incorporates The Monkey House theatre, named after Noel’s quirky collection of toy monkeys. The venue has undergone changes over recent months since Molly and Kasper Franke took over bookings for entertainment ranging from burlesque, comedy, drag queens and lots of live music.
So far, the enthusiastic couple have hosted over 30 events and Noel hopes they are able to continue after the takeover date. Over the years, the building has hosted a multitude of health-related events, including yoga and aerobics, and is also the home of the Mercury Bay x-ray unit.
When Noel, his wife, Nicky, and their three children arrived in Whitianga 40 years ago, his vision was to integrate into the community and to make a difference. They bought Whitianga Supermarket in 1981. Although Noel had retail experience from time working for Woolworths, his new business felt like a venture into the unknown, but he soon found a community of “wonderful, caring people”.
His next venture was buying the vacant fish factory in Coghill Street for the benefit of the community. He reflects, with satisfaction, on the community’s support when buying the building 30 years ago.
A team of enthusiasts transformed the factory into a community venue. Noel recalls with fondness the huge support he had from brothers, Ray and Don (both deceased), when converting a commercial fish factory with conveyor belts, huge fish tanks and the overwhelming odour of fish into a place where people could relax and be entertained.
Noel reckons having an x-ray facility in Whitianga saves residents time and a fortune in fuel costs, the nearest alternative being Thames. He is proud that it was installed in the Health Factory and recalls the quest to get it in the town. “Our Lions Club was talking about where it could go and I piped up and said, ‘What about my ex-fish factory? That would be okay, it’s got thick concrete and three-phase power.’ Well, people liked that idea and we had a lot of support. I’m so happy to see it operating in our building, and, of course, it fits the aim of the Health Factory.” Noel is still involved in the Whitianga Lions Club.
The Hewlett’s home is full of family photos - weddings, gatherings and milestones. Tucked away are scrapbooks and news clippings that record Noel’s involvement in the community. He spreads them out on the dining table and opens one packed with reminders of his time with Thames-Coromandel District Council. He was on the Mercury Bay Community Board from 1994 to 1998, then a district councillor for 12 years. He described this era as “the most challenging and rewarding part of my life.
Noel thought “outside the square” and was unafraid of controversy. He promoted his strategy for council’s economic development and vision planning, for which he was criticised as being in a dream world. News clippings record the town’s shock when a law change stalled the multi-million dollar longterm Whitianga Waterways project. Then there was controversy over plans to upgrade The Esplanade.
The Whitianga Bike Park is a project close to Noel’s heart. He and his brother Ray took over this community asset in 2004. It is now under new management, but Noel plans to continue his involvement. He spoke out against the installation of a water pipeline across Tairua Harbour to Pauanui, saying it would cost millions of dollars. Instead, water catchments and reservoirs were increased in Tairua and Pauanui, with a huge saving for ratepayers.
Noel came up with the idea of creating a canal and caravan park on the floodplain behind Tairua’s Ocean Beach Road. He believed this would solve flooding while creating an attractive facility. It did not receive support from officials. Maybe he was ahead of his time.
A strong advocate for his electorate, Noel accused councillors of being too parochial and biased towards the west side of the Coromandel Peninsula. At one stage he threatened council with a lawsuit for character assassination. Always the ideas person, when holidaying overseas, he made notes on how English local government operated and suggested points that could be adopted in New Zealand. He also noted the benefits of how society operated in Singapore.
Back in Whitianga, Noel continued to enjoy bringing events and people to The Monkey House. He created a unique place that included one wall featuring about 30 posters of Elvis and a series of dark corridors leading to The Scary Room where a screaming skeleton and an undulating floor welcomed any brave souls sharing his sense of fun.
Eighty-two-year-old Noel doesn’t like the word retirement and he plans to keep on working for the community that he loves. “I’m lucky enough to reach 82 and I take no pills,” he says. “My daughter reckons my medicine cabinet is the exercise and pleasure I get from involvement in the local bike park which I hope to continue.”
Noel grew up on a rehab dairy farm and feels fortunate to have grown up in a loving family. He believes this provided him with a good springboard for life and the desire to help others. As a Justice of the Peace, he is pleased that people can come to him with problems and it doesn’t cost them anything. “I will continue doing things to help my community because I love it. Of course I could not do all this without the support of my lovely wife,” he says.
Now Noel’s main focus will be helping young people and creating the opportunities that they need to have a purpose and worthwhile future. He regrets there are no longer training facilities in Whitianga for young people. “I also think the arts are important to people’s wellbeing, and I congratulate Molly and Kasper at The Monkey House who are currently offering so much for our entertainment,” he says. “To keep healthy, you need fresh air and focus. I’ll keep on going to meetings and giving comments because I can’t stop myself. If you help others, you are also helping yourself - there’s no question about it.”
Pictured is Noel Hewlett reflects on 40 years of involvement in Whitianga community.