Shrinking town soldiering on

On the edge of the desert, beneath the mountain, Waiouru is shrinking - fast. Ben Heather reports.

Former soldiers return to Waiouru to remember, and leave with a tear in their eyes.

Where once there was a heaving military camp, there are now grassy paddocks, the rows of family homes sold off and carted away.

Barry Hodgson, who owns the Waiouru Welcome Inn, still remembers helping with a milk run at the camp just north of the town.

"There were thousands of people that were based here. It was like a city. Now it's just grass," he says.

"We have had people staying here that haven't been to the camp in 30 years and they go look and come back with a tear in their eye."

The central North Island town has lost nearly a third of its population since 2006, leaving just 738 residents. The 2013 census shows it to be among the fastest-shrinking towns in New Zealand.

Its decline is linked to successive decisions by the New Zealand Defence Force to cut the number of permanent staff, most recently in 2011. The camp is now used almost exclusively for training, with few permanent staff.

In a town that was built around the military's presence, where even the convenience store is owned by the Defence Force, the impact has been sharp.

Locals say the school roll has plummeted, even with a new building, and many businesses have closed, including two petrol stations and the town's only bank.

There are no representatives from the town on the Waimarino-Waiouru Community Board and, in the last local elections, there were only just enough candidates to fill the seats.

Stephen Vine, who owns Waiouru Motors, was born and raised in the town.

When his daughter went to school, there were about 600 other children. Now, his granddaughter attends the same school with fewer than 100 schoolmates.

His business has suffered too, dropping from four workers to just himself.

Like many here, he blames the top military brass for abandoning the town and mutters about pressure from wives unhappy with living in an isolated community with notoriously bad weather.

His father, Bob, served in the army at Waiouru for 20 years before retiring as a major and eventually moving north to Turangi in 2004.

He claims the town started going downhill with big military withdrawals in the early 1990s. Since then, it had been an "absolute disaster", both for the military and the town.

"The attitude of the army was not to use the finest training area in the southern hemisphere. It was to ensure the officers' wives could get a job somewhere."

The Defence Force has refused to say how many military personnel still live permanently in Waiouru, preferring to quote numbers that include staff stationed at the barracks temporarily for training.

As of census night in 2013, there were 470 defence staff at the camp, including 180 uniformed staff, with the rest civilians, both staff and contracted. This is only a slight drop from 525 at the camp in 2006, although 80 fewer of them are now uniformed personnel.

What the figures don't show is how many military families no longer live in the town, shop at its stores and fill its school.

A spokesman said army schools at Waiouru had been moved to Linton and Hokowhitu, in Manawatu, to be closer to the student population and relieve pressure on the small town's infrastructure. The Defence Force continued to be the "key foundation" of the community, providing many services such a civil defence, he said. It still employed many locals, as did the National Army Museum, and there were no plans to reduce its presence further.

While the withdrawal of the military may have exacerbated Waiouru's woes, in other ways its decline is typical of many communities in the central North Island.

Many rural towns are shrinking and have been for years, as the young continue to move to the cities chasing work or education.

The Ruapehu district has shed more than 7 per cent of its population since 2006. None of its scattering of towns have grown.

Despite the population shrinking, there are more people unemployed than seven years ago, particularly teenagers. For those who work, the median income remains about $4000 shy of the national median.

District Mayor Don Cameron said there just were not the opportunities to keep young people at home.

"The young people go away to get a qualification and not many come home."

In Waiouru, the military withdrawal had hit hard and the town had probably been neglected for years, he said.

"They feel a bit unloved, which is understandable. They have been."

However, he was more upbeat about the future.

While the military's presence had lessened, there had been more effort to engage with the community.

The army was involved in revamping the town's main street, and the population had finally appeared to have stabilised.

Throughout the district, money from Treaty settlements with iwi was being earmarked for youth training, hopefully helping to keep more young people at home, he said.

Expected upgrades to broadband and cellphone reception would also open the gates for new business to relocate to a cheaper area.

And Waiouru could be the first to benefit from attempts to lure more tourists to the district.

"Waiouru is the gateway, no doubt. "We are trying to get more people to stop and stay there, and then take a left-hand turn instead of heading on to Taupo."

Migrants such as Peter Smithies will be key to keeping small towns like Waiouru going. Originally from Britain, he moved to the town eight years ago, attracted by its size and isolation.

He now runs a small multimedia business, doing work for businesses throughout the central North Island, and running the town's main website. Like many residents, one of his biggest customers is still the army.

"It's a pretty close-knit community. Everyone knows everyone."

Central District Times