CBD 'killed by poor town planning'

LOUISE BERWICK
Last updated 05:00 20/06/2014

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A big red box, a signature and three decades later a city council is scrambling to redirect shoppers back into the inner city.

There is no doubt that having major retailers clustered around The Warehouse in Leven St is a drawcard for shoppers - with the result that thousands of dollars are spent daily in the stores.

Big-box retail was given the go-ahead in 1987, luring people towards the outskirts of the city.

But as the council prepares to plough millions of dollars to rejuvenate the central business district, namely Esk St, it appears the council created conundrum itself.

Council chief executive Richard King said the council sold land it owned in the 1980s, then occupied by the Municipal Electricity Department, to The Warehouse almost 30 years ago, beginning the move to "destinational retail".

The move has drastically changed Invercargill's landscape, the hustle and bustle of the city moved to Leven St, where the traffic is constant, the car parks full and the people are flocking.

King, who was chief executive of the council at the time, defends the decision, saying the sale was inevitable.

Big-box retailers were "destinational shops" and when several looked to come to town, there were several sites to choose from, King said.

"It would have been nice to have it in the city but the problem with that is there was no green-field space to develop."

Prominent Invercargill businessman Acton Smith, who was managing director of H&J Smith at the time, agreed but was philosophical about the situation.

"It's very easy to correct in hindsight."

He had lobbied for The Warehouse to be in the central city, spanning from Deveron St to the H&J Smith car park in Esk St.

Smith said there was benefit in having big shops nearby because they created more foot traffic, which was easy to see from comparing Esk St to Leven St.

"You may have ended up developing the city without the council having to pay for it."

But Smith said he understood the needs of big-box retail and when Mitre 10 Mega was opened in Invercargill, it was restricted by the need for space and car parking, he said.

"We need something that offered two hectares in size."

To find land that size within the city for The Warehouse to develop would have involved multiple landowners, which would have pushed the price up, King said.

"It was a choice of having them or not having them."

But former city councillor Geoff Piercy said the decision had simply killed the inner city.

He remembers The Warehouse being given the go ahead, land he had hoped would be used for Splash Palace.

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"It was very poor town planning at the time," Piercy said.

"I could see what was going to happen and wanted to put Splash Palace there . . . that would have brought people into town."

Piercy said the council had caused the issue of not enough people in town and now they were throwing money at a project to solve it.

"Absolutely they will disagree with me but they should never have sold that site . . . we have actually spoiled the town."

Yet Piercy did cut the council some slack and agreed the retailers were needed in Invercargill, but in the centre of the city, not on the outskirts.

"I think that had the firms being serious about coming here; they would have probably bought up some of the old stuff in the city."

Southland Chamber of Commerce president Sean Woodward agreed that shoppers had been pulled from the heart of the city but maintained it was about balance and the big boxes had their place in Invercargill business.

Long-serving councillor Neil Boniface, who was on the council at the time, said big-box retailers could have gone elsewhere in the city, including the Scottish Hall site, but they chose where they built, not the council.

"The council did try its best but at the end of the day, business will go where business wants to go."

Boniface conceded the big shops had been damaging to the central business district.

"Yes it has been [determinantal] because it has created a drive to destinational shops where in the old days people could drive into town, park the car, and visit half a dozen shops."

Piercy remembers those days, when the big retailers were the drapers shops along Tay St and going to the inner city was an outing for the whole family.

"Town has completely changed."

In those days people went to lots of local shops to get what they needed, not just one big retailer with a big car park, he said.

But Boniface said it was harsh blaming the council.

"He's being harsh and a bit unfair in blaming us."

- The Southland Times

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