Finding favour in country towns

Sign of the times: small towns in New Zealand are wanting new residents.
Sign of the times: small towns in New Zealand are wanting new residents.

Once, all small towns looked pretty much the same. Now they do everything they can to be different. JOHN McCRONE explains why. 

Omarama has changed. Just a few years back it was a dusty road junction; a filling station, pub, Four Square and huddle of houses breaking the tussocky monotony of the long haul from Twizel to Wanaka.

It was about as far from anywhere as you could find. Now it boasts a Xena: the Warrior Princess museum.

And that's not all: "On a summer's night here you've got a choice of six places to eat out at. For a little town with a population of about 200, that's a bit of a laugh really," says Sally Fodie, indeed laughing merrily.

Fodie grew up in the tiny township in the 1950s, became an Auckland ferry captain, then returned in 2002 with husband Tony to open the Xena museum along with a shop selling rare books and other pricey collectibles.

Fodie seems proof that a country town was once where you came from, a place you grew up and left. Now they are places people are heading to. And this is changing them out of recognition.

In just a generation there has been a remaking of the countryside, particularly in the South Island. In the 1980s, rural towns were really all much the same. A monoculture. The location would be different, but there would be the same old pub, garage, primary, Four Square, war memorial hall, domain and tin-roof church.

Towns had no brands, no distinctive reason for being, apart from acting as a service centre to the local farming community.

Today you have Omarama, not only the final resting place for the mediaeval glad-rags of a cult television series, but on the map as the gliding capital of New Zealand, a place where world championships are held.

And tick off all the other state-highway pit-stops that have been transformed: Hokitika, Geraldine, Cromwell, Twizel.

There are plenty of unlikely makeovers. Well, who would have predicted it even in the early 1990s?

We have Methven managing to pass itself off as a roisterous alpine village despite being on the flat and little nearer the ski slopes than Christchurch.

Moeraki's boulders the rocks that have prompted so many a bemused tourist cry of "is that it then?" have been overtaken in the fame stakes by Fleur's Place, a fish restaurant that is causing people finally to duck off the main road and discover the settlement itself.

Of course, not every town has managed to scramble aboard the transformation express quite so successfully.

Waimate's yellow shed hop into town, see our wallabies, just 6km out of your way as you are barrelling down the road from Timaru to Oamaru has long sounded a note of quiet desperation. Even the regular contributions of the graffiti artists to the shed, usually in the form of outsized private parts to adorn the leaping wallaby, have not caused too much traffic to deviate.

The town worthies have talked about erecting a giant plastic wallaby statue to really draw attention to Waimate, much like Gore's trout, Rakaia's salmon, or Cromwell's big fruit. You could have had a ladder inside to peek out of the pouch and enjoy the view, says former Waimate mayor David Owen. But the idea did not click. There is only so much mileage in pinning your town identity on an imported marsupial pest (2000 shot in the annual autumn cull).

To be fair to Waimate, there is a lot else they are trying. But what has been the story for the Mainland's other country towns?


And is it a resurgence that with the petrol crisis can be lasting?

Gavin Forrest, rural affairs co-ordinator for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, says the economic forces at work are mostly obvious enough.

In the 1960s and '70s, rural communities were protected. There was little change because with agricultural tariffs and easy markets there was little need for change. Country towns were indeed generic farm-service centres.

In the '80s and '90s, there was some harsh catching up. Many small towns lost their roles as local administrative headquarters for district councils. Flour mills, sawmills, freezing works and other large employers suddenly shut up shop due to market forces or whims of foreign owners.

As jobs went and families drifted away, Forrest says there was an urgent need to move from the generic to the niche, from monoculture to healthy diversity.

The explosion in tourism has been the big change. It sent a wave of money washing through the countryside, creating thousands of jobs in cafes and trinket shops, motels and excursion businesses. But there have also been other waves worth catching.

Retiring baby boomers for a start. People with a bit of money began retiring to the nicer spots like Wanaka and Oamaru, then Geraldine and Cromwell.Second homes also became a trend. Locals have baches, but Aucklanders, and even Londoners and San Franciscans, began buying flash houses on the lakefronts and hilltops, thinking nothing of jetting in for a quiet retreat.

The potential for tele-commuting got many excited. The thought was today's knowledge workers would be flocking to the sticks. Forrest says there has been a little of that, a few web designers and fund managers setting up virtual offices in remote locations.

But more conspicuous has been an influx of lifestylers and downshifters. Every country town will have its dynamic young German couple, or family of Poms, enthusiastic about the vegetable patch and mountainbiking possibilities.

Every town also now seems to have its local guild of artists, glass-blowers and photographers, somehow scraping a living far from the big smoke, and often appearing to be doing rather better than that.

If country towns are different, it is because the mix of their inhabitants has changed dramatically as much as they have been sprucing themselves up to catch the tourist trade. Their intellectual capital has leapt.

McGregor Simpson, a former Geraldine Community Board chairman and local historian, says the effect on the feel of the town in a generation has been very noticeable.

"Geraldine used to be no different than Temuka, Pleasant Point, Waimate, or wherever. It was a typical New Zealand market town serving a rural community," he says.

Today he can think of half a dozen artists of some renown, many settlers from overseas. And while Geraldine has long been a retirement town for local farmers, it is now attracting people from far and wide. They pass through as tourists and return as residents.

"A lot of people who have retired here have been eminent. Two I could mention were literally rocket scientists in Britain and America. There's lots of others whose backgrounds are not those of the typical person you'd expect to see in a country town," Simpson says.

Geraldine gets picked for its gentle climate and pastoral views. And because it is a cheaper option than Wanaka. But Forrest points out that in-comers are also valuing towns like Ophir and Omarama for their bleak extremes of weather and landscape, or Karamea and Haast for their end-of-the-world locations.

"A lot of places where people wouldn't want to live in the past, like the Mackenzie Country, have become quite chic," he says.

Forest says, of course, it is not only the fresh blood that is invigorating near-forgotten towns. Many have also bounced back due to changes in the fortunes of farming and their traditional industries.

Wine has brought a welcome diversification to some. Coal and gold have lifted parts of the West Coast again. And irrigation and dairying have been making a difference just about everywhere social as well as economic. A sheep farm can be run by one man and his dog. Dairy farms need workers, and workers mean young families and swelling school rolls in some towns again.

Yet another factor, says Forrest, has been the rise in commuting. Any small place within an hour of a big place has been swollen by those willing to trek into town for a job. Even Nelson has satellite dormitory towns like Wakefield and Motueka.

The same applies the other way. Any small town, even a few hours out, becomes a potential weekend bolthole. Christchurch residents are on the road Friday nights headed for the subdivisions now carving up Tekapo, Hanmer and Brunner.

The question is with petrol prices, environmental concerns, and possible economic hard times, will the revitalisation of country towns prove sustainable? It is a gloomy thought, not as much fun as debating what kind of mascot should brand a town, or how much money could be made with a new heritage centre.

Yet and perhaps it has something to do with that accumulation of new intellectual capital it is something which is receiving a surprising amount of consideration in smaller townships now.

David Wilson, an Oamaru-based rural-change consultant, who has been working with Kurow's The Way Forward Group and other local renewal projects, says the countryside has to get ready to change all over again.

"People are looking at the oil situation, climate change and food shortages globally and saying, `well, everything is not going to be all right. We need to take a fresh position on what we're going to do to address these issues'."

Wilson says Hampden, south of Oamaru, is a good example of a new small-town activism. Led by irrigation consultant Dugald MacTavish, residents have formed Hampden Community Energy Incorporated to question how they will cope if almost everything to survive has to be local.

At an expo in May, residents were talking about planting orchards, building windmills, running community gardens and market days. Hampden has added itself to a growing list of transition towns a movement out of Germany which are discussing their futures in terms of relocalisation, permaculture, peak oil: the new buzzwords for a new era.

Wilson says the past decade has seen a fresh face to many country towns. But some of it seems a touch forced, a touch commercial, tacked on for the sake of tourists.

So more ground-up, community and eco-minded approaches are being explored, such as asset-based community-development profiling. This involves a town surveying itself to find out exactly what skills its residents have to offer, what resources there are to exploit. Answers and future directions then begin to present themselves.

"There is a lot of new thinking about growing communities from the inside-out, asking what are our unique assets and how do we go about building on them in this new millenium?" Wilson says.

It is all rather sobering. However, it could just be that living in the country, it is easier to imagine a time when everyone will need pigs and hens in their garden, a time when a throng of diesel-spewing tour buses and campervans is a long-distant memory.

In the meantime, the brightening of country towns seems something to celebrate. There is plenty going on in small-town New Zealand.