The many upsides to a thriving central business district
Councils spend millions on trying to make their central business districts vibrant and exciting. David Burroughs reports on the profits of a good looking CBD.
Walking down Hawera's main street, South Taranaki mayor Ross Dunlop points to a row of buildings lined up side by side down Regent St.
At the moment they house Gelato Cafe, a gold coin shop and Bliss Beauty Retreat but within the next couple of years they will be replaced with a shiny new development to house the town's Centre for Heritage, Arts, Library, Culture and Information.
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At a cost of $6 million, the new development doesn't come cheap but it's similar to what is being done in town centres and CBDs around the region as times change.
"We're doing a certain amount but we feel that's giving confidence to the private sector to also invest and we're already seeing some really good signs of that," Dunlop says.
Hawera isn't the only town getting a central business district spruce up.
Stratford has drawn up plans for a large shake up of Broadway and the surrounding streets and parks, including knocking down the ANZ building and expanding Prospero Place, while New Plymouth also has plans in the pipeline to reinvigorate Devon St and the surrounding area.
But while it might seem that spending millions on a centralised shopping area is redundant in an age where almost anything can be bought online and delivered in a few days, or even overnight if you're lucky, that money has more than just an effect on increasing the income made by inner-city retailers, Dunlop says.
A council that didn't show it backed it's own town didn't do much to boost the confidence of those looking to develop and boost the CBD.
"And if the council, probably the wealthiest organisation in the community, is not willing to invest, why would we invest," Dunlop says of what investors will be thinking when looking where to spend their money.
In Hawera that investment would appear to be paying a dividend already.
Countdown has announced the construction of a new supermarket in Hawera while the development of Campbell Lane saw Warehouse Stationery move into the town.
It comes down to the basics of business and economics, South Taranaki District Council (STDC) communications manager Gerard Langford adds.
"If you feel positive about stuff, you take a risk and if you feel negative, you go somewhere else," he says.
It's no secret that shopping is changing and there is a need for retail, and by extension CBDs, to change with it.
"Your town centre will become less of a retail place and more of a social meeting place," Langford says.
Whether it's a pan, a dress, a book or the weekly grocery shopping, it's all available at the click of a button and the sector will only change more as multi-national companies such as Amazon move closer, with the American-based online retailer announcing last month it is opening a distribution centre in Australia.
A report issued by investment advisors Forsyth Barr says retailers are now more likely to be based in smaller stores due to the presence of online retail, but that doesn't mean they're going to disappear completely.
People still like visiting brick and mortar shop to some degree according to Graham Squires, an associate professor in economics at Massey.
But shopping is now changing to become more about the experience, similar to spending a day at the beach or going on a road trip.
"Shops aren't going to be a redundant feature on a high street because people still like to browse and they still like to use commercial buildings as part of their leisure and recreation," Squires says.
"It's not just the functionality of buying a product, it's the actual experience of going into shops and stores to actually try out different services and obviously people are going to explore what's out there and want to physically explore and touch particular products, they might after that go and buy them online."
That trend is reflected in the latest retail figures from the Venture Taranaki Trust (VTT), which show people spent $209.75 million in New Plymouth's city centre from January to June - a 6.5 per cent increase on the same time period last year, while retail spending in South Taranaki grew 8.9 percent in the same period.
Though retailers had seen business pick up a little, the general feeling is that there is still more room for improvement within the CBD.
Dallas Barnes, the manager at the Canterbury store on Devon St West, says having events like the All Blacks in town really boosts to the number of people out and about on the streets.
"It depends on what's going on in the province, whether there's events that attract people. That always plays a huge role," he says.
"We just need more, more things in the city, even in the Huatoki plaza, more music and more things to do."
Stratford District Council Chief Executive Sven Hanne says that vibrancy is especially important in small towns like Stratford where the CBDs have an important role to perform as a hub for both residents and visitors.
"It gives local residents pride in their town and first impressions count for visitors who get a sense of a town from the main street and town centre, encouraging them to explore the town and district, adding to the local economy," he says.
Last year, the council revealed its "Future of Broadway" plan which aims to open up a town square and foster business while also connecting to the wider sports fields and parks around town.
"We started this last year with the redevelopment of the library, installation of new night lights and flags," Hanne says.
"Broadway is the gateway to the district and all it has to offer, and first impressions count."
If Broadway is doing well economically, it has benefits for the rest of the district, he says.
"The aim is to increase pedestrian activity on Broadway, connect Broadway to key places, like nearby parks and reserves, and promote Prospero Place as the cultural and community hub of the town, improve the overall attractiveness of the main entry points to the town and district, improve the overall recognition of the town's assets and features, to both residents and visitors."
While a CBD needs to bring in shoppers to be successful, it also needs to be a place that's attractive to businessess, investors and innovators as they in turn boost the town they come in to, says Dr Rebecca Gill, Senior Lecturer at Massey University's School of Management.
"One of the core roots of innovation is when we have a lot of communication going on, a lot of cross pollination of ideas when you have people from different backgrounds and different walks of life gathering together in a central space and being able to spark new ideas and shape new ideas, and all of that is what helps innovation grow," she says.
"I think the delightful thing about a vibrant town centre is that you cannot always predict or control who you are going to run into."
The use of the internet supposedly makes working from home just as easy, if not easier, than coming into an office but that had the ability to limit the unexpected connections created when lots of people were in a shared space.
Shared offices or co-working spaces have often been touted around the world as one solution to the changing way people are working, where they're less likely to lease a full office but are happy to rent a desk alongside other people.
One such project, Manifold, opened in New Plymouth two and a half years ago and there are calls for another to open in Hawera.
There is an element of trust involved in business, Gill says, which was often stronger when people meet face-to-face and co-working spaces were often a way to facilitate that.
"Maybe once you've established that maybe you can go to more online and virtual communication but you've got to have that face to face communication somewhere in the process to just nut out ideas and get to know the person," she says.
While councils often put a lot of work into creating spaces and initiatives to encourage more innovative thinking, there needs to be buy-in from the people living and working there.
"Does that region or that city see itself as vibrant and collaborative because if it doesn't see itself in that way there's no clear kind of identity of the community to rally around, then I think it's a lot harder to bring people together," she says.
"We do need to stop thinking of ourselves as large town and start thinking of ourselves as a small city," he says.
"As we benefit from NZ's tourism boom helped along by the Lonely Planet announcement, a key focus should be how New Plymouth's CBD presents itself to visitors.
"This is not just a job for council but the whole community, including the property owners in the CBD."
The council launched the central city action plan in 2016 and along with the Chamber of Commerce and the Business and Retail Association (BARA) sought to implement a range of initiatives to increase the look and feel of the CBD.
"These places aren't just places of business," he says.
"You get a really good mix of mix of activities, a place where people still live and work and play."
The focus was on having layers of activities to make sure the area was attractive to both residents and visitors.
"We're trying to invigorate the public spaces so people feel that the CBD is a place they want to head to and it's somewhere they want to spend some time in," he says.
"You want a day time economy and a night time economy."
The Council has recently consulted on its 'Top 10' issues with the CBD featuring strongly in the community feedback.
BARA membership and events coordinator Michelle Brennan says they are working on initiatives to enhance the CBD experience for locals and visitors.
"Along with existing events, there will be several new ones taking place," she says.
"We will be looking to encourage more retailers to expand their opening hours over the summer period and take advantage of the expected increase in foot traffic."
One suggestion for creating a more vibrant CBD was explored in a 2013 report by Ashleigh Gulliver who had just finished her Bachelor of Resource and Environmental Planning at Massey University at the time.
While working as an intern at the council, she put forward the idea of utilising medium density housing within and around the CBD, which her report says would make life easier and more enjoyable for residents as they would be closer to community facility, parks, shops and schools.
While it wouldn't be everyone's idea of a dream home, she suggests adding it as another option for people.
In the summary of her report, she acknowledged the importance a vibrant CBD plays in the wider district and region.
"The success of New Plymouth District is closely linked with the success of the New Plymouth central area," the report says.
"A vibrant, efficient and accessible central area is key to achieving success."