Districts in show of resilience

GOOD OUTLOOK: Andy Beccard.
GOOD OUTLOOK: Andy Beccard.

Andy Beccard sees a future for Hawera in handbags.

"Well, boutiquey-type shops that sell those sorts of things. That is the sort of shopping I think will happen," the South Taranaki district councillor says, confidently predicting the retail landscape that may exist in the wake of the rural town's much-anticipated CBD redesign.

It is his hope this project, still far from being anywhere but on the drawing board, will see Hawera become a shopping destination not only for South Taranaki but for everyone else in the province as well.

"There is a lot of money in South Taranaki," he says.

"We just need to get everyone spending in Hawera."

But not everyone is confident even that will be enough. On Tuesday, Foodstuffs took the unusual step of announcing the closure of its profitable Hawera New World supermarket after a review projected the future population of the town may struggle to support it.

The decision brings 53 job losses but the greater price could well be the dent it makes in the town's confidence. Coming just two weeks after an alarming report by the Royal Society of New Zealand that raised the possibility of "red zoning" rural towns as too expensive to support and predictions councils would struggle to maintain services in large swaths of provincial New Zealand as populations aged and dwindled, the supermarket's closure is, perhaps, a sign the rot has already arrived.

Beccard is adamant it is not the case and, as you might expect, so is Stuart Trundle, the head of Taranaki economic development agency Venture Taranaki.

"The lure of the metropolitan centres is impacting on all regions. Though Taranaki's smaller towns have demonstrated a resilience in the face of increased centralisation for health and other public services," he says.

"Smaller communities can offer a package of lifestyle, ease of living and cost advantages over bigger centres, and we have seen population growth in some of our smaller centres as the balance tips in favour of these factors."

Trundle's is a rose-tinted perspective. While it's true South Taranaki and Stratford districts have seen an increase in population during the past seven years, that increase has been just 100 people each. Put another way: about three families a year.

It's not much but Dr William Cochrane, a research associate at Waikato University's National Institute of Demographic and Economic Analysis, believes it might just be enough to ensure Taranaki's rural town centres escape the dire predictions under which so much of provincial New Zealand labours.

"This suggests that neither Hawera nor South Taranaki are about to experience some cataclysmic demographic apocalypse in the near future."

"Longer term, the projection points to ageing and a more-gradual population decline which, while challenging, aren't of the magnitude and immediacy of areas such as the South Waikato, Ruapehu or Kawerau," he says. In large part this may be because Taranaki has already gone through the demographic upheaval brought on by the ageing population, outward migration and the agglomeration of farms that stripped rural areas of the families who used to allow communities like Douglas, Warea, Pungarehu, Hurleyville and Pihama to exist.

"There will be, as has been for a long time, the gradual collapse of some smaller marginal communities and the concentration of whatever residual population remains in some of the larger rural towns," Cochrane says.

Hawera, with its giant Whareroa dairy factory nearby, is not likely to disappear, he says, but it might be in a different form, possibly of the sort Beccard imagines.

South Taranaki Mayor Ross Dunlop is notoriously positive about South Taranaki and, like so many other residents, exhibits a genuine pride in his provincial home.

Fonterra's $60 million expansion of its Taranaki operations is recent proof there is plenty of life left in rural town New Zealand, he says, and the fear mongering about the silver tsunami of an aging population drowns out the potential benefits.

"There are opportunities in an older population, such as in rest-home care, and older people still spend money and they are a lot more healthy than they used to be," he says.

"This gives them a lot more opportunities to get involved in their community. This involvement is really noticeable in South Taranaki."

The social good possible from an ageing population is difficult to measure but jobs in aged care are a certainty. From 2006 to 2013, health and social assistance was the fastest-growing industry in the country and is now its largest employer, keeping 191,694 in work.

So while Hawera New World's 32 fulltime and 21 part-time staff are reportedly being offered work at Foodstuffs' Hawera Pak 'n Save and Stratford's New World, they may soon find an abundance of work caring for the elderly.

Or, in a year, they may find work at a new Countdown supermarket seeking consent approval in Stratford, or even in the Countdown in Hawera, where rumours of an expansion will almost certainly turn to reality in light of Foodstuffs' New World decision.

Stratford District Council chief executive Sue Davidson says there is every reason for the district to be confident despite demographic trends. The supermarket is one sign but there are numerous other retail developments and signals that the district is riding high.

"In the last two years we have even had a new church. Where do they build new churches any more," she says.

Like Hawera, it is investigating how to reinvigorate their town centre to build confidence and take better advantage of the 14,000 vehicles that drive down their main street every day.

There is even hope the seismic shift in earthquake-strengthening requirements many feared would spell the end of rural New Zealand's ageing retail spaces might not be as catastrophically expensive as initially signalled.

"Local Government New Zealand has advised that Nick Smith, who is now involved with this bill, seems to be taking a more-realistic approach and is listening," Davidson says.

Like many others, Whanganui MP Chester Borrows sees Hawera's supermarket closure, though disappointing, as part of the natural ebb and flow of businesses rather than a sign of dire times to come.

Retail and service needs also change, he says. The internet has seen to that. What formerly required a trip to town can now be done from home and that will necessarily impact on a town's built environment.

His government recognises the massive contribution rural areas play in the national economy and its role, he says, is encouraging new ideas to fill those empty spaces and ensuring the infrastructure is there to make development possible.

"I guess what the Government does is to recognise it needs to create an environment where people will invest into all sorts of innovative ideas and make sure that those things are promoted. If you look at the partnership model the Government has got for assisting people in the primary industries, a lot of that money is filtered down to the provinces and to rural areas where people are working on innovative solutions, which then have a manufacturing offshoot or whatever and some of those are based in small rural areas," he says.

He points to the 70-odd jobs created by John Burling's Eltham-based exporter Carac Couplings as the sort of business that rural areas need and that his government will support.

"It's those sorts of things that stand out and gives us all hope that things will work on and get better. And then some of the bigger companies like Fonterra, Riverlands, Silver Fern Farms and Yarrows, of course, they are the backbone."

Taranaki Daily News