From early next week, life will change dramatically for the small Waikato town of Ngaruawahia.
Thousands of vehicles that currently bustle down State Highway 1 and through the town will suddenly disappear as the ribbon is cut today on the $200 million Ngaruawahia section of the Waikato Expressway.
The 12.3-kilometre road stretches from Taupiri to Horotiu and will divert a large chunk of state highway traffic to the east of Ngaruawahia.
There's bound to be some impact on businesses so it's no surprise that civic leaders have been doing some hard thinking about how they can reinvent the town.
Planning is underway to transform Ngaruawahia from a drive-through to a "cultural destination", based on its reputation as the home of the Kingitanga through its historic marae Turangawaewae.
Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson said Pokeno was an example of a community which had thrived after losing their state highway lifeline.
"Pokeno has marketed itself successfully using bacon and icecreams and Ngaruawahia will have to find its own niche if it's to promote itself as a destination," Mr Sanson said.
"But the opportunities around cultural tourism are immense. It's the home of the Kingitanga, it's got the beautiful Waikato River and it has Turangawaewae marae.
"It's got the bones for exactly why people go to Rotorua for, they just don't have the smell of flamin' sulphur."
Waikato ideas on how Ngaruawahia could promote itself were being nutted out as part of the development of a structure plan for the town.
Having SH1 running through the town hindered growth because the New Zealand Transport Agency controlled what happened along the corridor, Mr Sanson said.
"By having Great South Rd become a council road it unlocks its potential for residential growth. I can understand the anxiety of retailers around losing SH1 and what it could mean but we will all come out of it all right.
"Traffic will continue to be relatively high; it's not as if we're going to disappear and become a ghost town overnight."
About 17,000 vehicles passed daily through the town on SH1. Ngaruawahia Community House community led development manager Wendy Diamond said most residents would welcome not having the constant rumble of trucks passing through town.
She said the town had a rich history with many natural attractions.
"It's about transforming us from a drive-through to a cultural destination.
"The Hakarimata range, for example, is beautiful and it's just a matter of joining the dots and making people aware that this is all here."
Ngaruawahia historian Lindsay Griffiths said the loss of SH1 would be a challenge for business owners and residents but the town had overcome greater adversities in the past.
"Ngaruawahia has definitely faced bigger challenges. The loss of jobs at Horotiu and the army camp disappearing at Hopuhopu had a dramatic effect on the town.
"Not having SH1 passing through will be a challenge but I think it will be a positive."
Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee will officially open the Ngaruawahia section of the expressway and described it as a major milestone for the project which will bypass Cambridge, Huntly and Hamilton.
"It is not just freight the expressway will benefit, it's commuters, tourists and all those people that need safer and more efficient connections between here and Auckland."
Transport Agency data released last year showed SH1 from Huntly to Hamilton was the country's riskiest stretch of highway.
Pokeno businessman and resident Don McIntosh said it took the settlement about three years to bounce back after the motorway was diverted away from Pokeno in 1997.
The key to their success was having a well designed on and off ramp and having a clear brand.
"Eventually people realised they could easily get here, there was no traffic issues, and they could relax with an icecream."
OPENING PLEASES BUSINESSES, LOCALS
There's an art to crossing Ngaruawahia's main street.
A gliding skip, a quick paced two-step or a simple mad dash - all techniques used by pedestrians crossing the town's main drag.
But next week all that will change when state highway traffic is switched on to the Waikato Expressway.
Dave Moore, owner of Poppa's Rainbow Cafe, won't miss the roar of trucks thundering past his business. The expressway opening is a chance for locals to reclaim their main street, he believes.
"Ninety five per cent of my customers are locals and I get very little business from SH1 traffic," he says.
He has already drawn up plans for life once the highway is gone.
"I have a pizza kitchen oven which I plan to launch once the expressway opens. The biggest hindrance to my business is the fact customers can't park outside my restaurant and nobody wants to cross this bloody road because it's so busy."
Fast food outlets dominate the strip of shops flanking one side of the town's main road. Outside a bakery, a scattering of red plastic chairs are filled with people enjoying a late lunch. No-one admits to being fussed by the loss of the state highway through their town.
Raj Mistry, owner of Hiway 1 dairy, says some food outlets might take a hit once the Ngaruawahia section opens but believes the town will still attract visitors.
"We need signs on the expressway telling people we are here.
"Most of the town's businesses are small and we don't have money to pay for big ads or signs.
"But we need something telling people about Waingaro Hot Springs and everything else we have to offer."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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