'Sleepy' Eltham waking up

Bridge St, Eltham, is pulling visitors looks for cheese and a vintage bargain.
Bridge St, Eltham, is pulling visitors looks for cheese and a vintage bargain.

A trip to Eltham is like taking a step back in time.

Historic buildings line the town's two main streets and murals of times past decorate public places.

Some buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory but many sit empty and neglected.

An informal survey of the main streets showed roughly 30 shopfronts were open and 20 were empty.

Until recently this ratio was even worse, Eltham Business Association president Judith Rodgers said.

"The place was looking quite dead," Rodgers said.

But Eltham had transformed itself into a haven of boutique secondhand and craft shops in recent times.

"It just did its own change into this lovely, crafty, recycling treasure trove of shops," Rodgers said.

While this unique town identity was important, Eltham industries were the glue holding the town together, she said.

"The industry here is great.

"That's what keeps it all together I think."

With two huge cheese-making plants Eltham is regarded as the cradle of the Taranaki dairy industry.

Fonterra is the town's biggest employer with 700 staff, followed by the Riverlands freezing works which employs about 500.

In the 2006 Census Eltham had a population of 1980 - two less than its 1951 Census population.

Eltham Business Association president Rodgers said of the 92 businesses around Eltham 51 were members of the association.

After eight years as president of the association Rodgers was now stepping out of the role.

Eltham likes to think of itself as a town of firsts.

It was the first town in New Zealand to have tarsealed roads and the first place to export butter to England and claims to have held the first ever World Axemen's Carnival.

And now it's about to have another New Zealand first - a cheese-themed toilet block.

Architect Bill Jackson said the concept was a homage to the town's cheese industry, arts culture and heritage.

Another person preserving the heritage of Eltham is The Bank owner Barbara Valintine who owns an "eclectic vintage and retro chic" shop - one of many in Eltham.

The former New Plymouth woman was drawn to Eltham by the building she now lives and works in. "This building seduced us," Valintine said of the bank her and husband Mark Bellringer restored.

Built in 1916 the grand old bank was like "living in a little chateau", she said.

Eltham was very much a destination town recognised for its secondhand and vintage boutiques, she said.

"I suppose it's a different style of shopping."

Where that "style" came from she couldn't say.

"I think it's just evolved somehow."

Business had been steady since opening The Bank four years ago, she said.

"This is the first winter I've noticed there has been a bit of a downturn in number of people but it's still ticking over."

Like Valintine, Rhubarb Cafe owner Annette McGregor was also lured to Eltham by an old house she fell in love with and turned into a bed and breakfast.

She then opened Rhubarb in June last year, shortly after her son, Brett, won MasterChef New Zealand, she said.

Rhubarb's location on Eltham's High St was the perfect possie for a cafe, she said.

"Foot traffic is amazing," McGregor said.

Her only gripe was a lack of parking in Eltham.

Eltham residents and New Plymouth visitors made up the majority of her business but there were also many from outside the region, she said.

Winter was far busier than the summer months with Rhubarb's homely atmosphere and old fashioned baking enticing customers through its doors.

About 90 per cent of the food sold at Rhubarb was made on site, she said.

"It's just a nice warm atmosphere to come into and I think most of the shops reflect that in Eltham."

She loved the current vibe of the town.

"Eltham has a great spirit and we have some funky shops.

"It's just a small town but it's a lovely town."

While many shopfronts on the southern side of Bridge St may appear empty there is actually a hive of activity going on behind the paper-covered windows.

Carac Couplings LaserJet NZ managing director John Burling has transformed numerous buildings into parts cutting and production plants.

He now owns nearly a whole block of Eltham, slowly buying up the old buildings.

Burling said Carac Couplings has the largest collection of presses in New Zealand and has 3500 products and parts in its production range.

"We export all over the world," Burling said.

"I would say there's no-one set up like us in Australia or New Zealand."

He supplies metal parts to all sorts of industry from motor to services to dairy to oil and gas, he said.

"We're purely into mass production and engineering."

After 24 years in Eltham Carac Couplings now employs at least 40 people.

Another two started last week "but we're always looking for more", Burling said.

Burling's wife, Yvonne, and his three children help run the business.

The best thing about working in Eltham was the low overheads, he said.

"Overheads are always much less in a rural area."

Property was cheap, transport easy and distribution to the rest of New Zealand fast and efficient, he said.

"Everything for everybody is a lot less hassle."

The downsides of living in Eltham - none according to Burling. "There's no disadvantages."

Burling said he could not see business at Carac Couplings slowing down any time soon.

"We've got huge growth rates for the next three to four years."

Viv Scott, of McDonald Real Estate Eltham, said the house market in Eltham was slow at present with the average house priced between $120,000 and $130,000.

But things were looking up with a few new faces about town.

"There's still quite a bit of activity in Eltham," Scott said.

"We're seeing a lot of strangers in town which is really cool.

Things were a lot more positive in the village now than they had been for some time, she said.


 Town population: 1980 (2006 Census) Number of Taranaki Chamber of Commerce members: 4 Shop fronts on High St and Bridge St: 30 tenanted, 20 empty Average house price estimated by McDonald Real Estate: $120,000 to $130,000.

Taranaki Daily News