In the first of a two-part series, Annemarie Quill investigates and discovers there are two different views.
"IF I lay down in my shop and died, it could be days before my body is discovered."
In her Southern Californian accent, Suzie Glover, the owner of Lilies Floral Boutique in Piccadilly Arcade in downtown Tauranga, is anything but flowery in her blunt summation of Tauranga's downtown.
For 13 years, Glover has owned four stores in the arcade, which she affectionately refers to as Coronation Street. One is empty. A sign on the window says "Location, location, location ... Tauranga's busiest mall ... Call Suzie."
The arcade's entrance on Devonport Rd is flanked by two prime retail sites. One, formerly a shoe boutique, has so many For Lease signs pasted on the window, you hardly see through the glass. On the other corner, Don Stewart is still going after 62 years in business. The 84-year-old moved into the arcade in 1968.
"I wouldn't be anywhere else. We have a loyal customer base but we would like more people looking in the window. Shops used to be around a long time. Now you can hardly keep up. Everything is changing."
The situation in the Piccadilly Arcade is echoed across downtown where empty buildings and lease signs are appearing often.
"It is like as though five weeks ago, someone switched the lights out," says Colin Milne, who owns the bars Crown and Badger and Sideline on the Strand.
Marketing entrepreneur Sheldon Nesdale, who works in a shared office space Studio64 above the Med Cafe in Devonport Rd, paints a picture: "There are lots of For Lease signs downtown ... like a smile with half the front teeth missing."
Within Mainstreet Tauranga's area - Monmouth St to Second Ave, and the city side of Cameron Road - there are 734 commercial office spaces and of those 606 are occupied. This equates to 128 empty sites, or more than 17 per cent. First floor and above office space makes up 58.78 per cent of the current available spaces for lease.
Colliers International Tauranga chief executive Simon Clark says the retail vacancy rate for the Bay overall is down from last year and the overall office vacancy rate is stagnant.
"This is over the whole market and may be influenced by large spaces, such as the former Foodtown space, skewing the total figures. In the CBD, the vacancy rate is up due to a number of factors including economic pressure on retailers in general, the downturn in retail, a washout of downtown retailers to other retail centres, such as Bayfair (which despite being more expensive than downtown has high footfall) and to other retail centres that have less expensive rent, such as Fraser Cove and Bethlehem Town Centre," he says.
"The other advantage of these retail centres is they have free parking, and a good mix including supermarkets."
Clark adds that some downtown retailers have been moving from Devonport Rd, where rents are flat or negative, to cheaper rents in Grey St. "There is pressure on rents to come down in Devonport Rd - and vacancies. Compare that to the Mount where there is high demand for retail space ... as there is a perceived higher level of people there."
Where are the people?"
IT is a stunning sunny Tuesday morning by the harbour at 10am, but there are hardly any people at the Strand. Ulku Altinkaya is wiping down the front courtyard of her restaurant Zeytin.
Ten years ago, when she opened the eatery, she says downtown was vibrant.
"Now it is dying. I feel sad. A town needs its main street. Where are the people?"
People are still spending though. Across the Bay of Plenty region, spending is up. Figures released last week from Paymark, which records 75 per cent of electronic transactions, show Bay shoppers increased spending in May by 2.3 per cent, compared with the same period last year. The national increase was 5.1 per cent. Queen's Birthday weekend had a boost in spending in the Bay of 14.5 per cent, compared with the same three days from the previous year. This was the highest of the resort regions.
Bayfair Shopping Centre spokeswoman Louise Chapman was reported as saying the mall experienced a 9 per cent rise in foot traffic for the Monday compared with the previous year.
But downtown Tauranga retailers said Queen's Birthday was slower than normal.
Zeytin restaurateur Altinkaya says businesses feel neglected by Mainstreet and Tauranga City Council, particularly over parking.
"They [council] allow free parking in other areas. Opposite us, we have a patch of grass."
Jeweller Don Stewart agrees parking is a major issue.
"Shoppers can't relax. If you are going to buy a diamond ring, you don't want to have one eye on your watch so you can get back to your meter in Willow St."
Bill Campbell, owner of Fancy That in Devonport Rd, says parking is a deterrent.
"The upcoming increases in parking charges ... and the reinstatement of the parking charges on Saturday mornings may bring many city centre businesses to crisis point."
Florist Glover, at Piccadilly Arcade, agrees.
"The parking is the coup de grace. The council do not make it easy. We asked for lower parking and they put it up," says Glover.
She is referring to the fact that from July 1 the council is scrapping the limits for parking but it comes at a price in the retail core where the council still wants to achieve a turnover of car parks. Instead of parking charges being based on $2 an hour, the council will lift them to $3 an hour on the assumption that $3 will dissuade people from parking for too long. Elsewhere, parking either stays at $2 an hour or drops to $1 an hour.
Parking aside, critics claim the downtown lacks a pulse. Bill Campbell says his customers often use the word "depressed" to describe the area.
Retailing body Mainstreet Tauranga, which collects compulsory levies from downtown ratepayers, is charged with marketing the area. It collected $273,800 in levies last financial year. Glover believes it does not do enough to bring people into the centre.
"We need it to be fun and happening. Look at the Mount where there is always something going on. Over here, do you remember the Christmas decorations?"
When asked which ones, she replies, "Exactly."
Bill Campbell says businesses are bailing to areas with more foot traffic, better parking and cheaper rents.
"A number of businesses have or are in the process of moving to the Mount or suburbs ... they can make more money in other parts of Tauranga."
Substandard buildings downtown also are a factor.
"Landlords are reluctant to spend money on earthquake-risk buildings because of the decline in people in the CBD, which means the landlord can't give security of tenure ... they don't know when or if they are going to strengthen or demolish their buildings." Chris Bosselmann is now a Mountie. His clothing store Vagabond was on Devonport Rd for three years. Finding the rents too high, he moved to the cheaper Grey St in November. Just six months later, he has closed his downtown store and moved to his other store in the Mount.
"A no-brainer. I have a bigger site for less money, free parking. It has a busy villagey feel. In the Mount, there are motels, apartments, holiday homes and tourists. downtown there is no hotel chain bringing in spenders."
Wallis clothing owner Anna Mountford also moved to the Mount from Grey St in February and has never looked back.
"Downtown, every second customer would mention parking. They didn't have time to try on clothes. Now I have lower rent, a big site and higher turnover."
Others see it differently, however.
Many downtown businesses are equally determined to stick it out. In the Strand, Colin Milne is tackling the parking issue head on. He has traded in his car and bought an eight-seat van used to pick up customers and take them home again.
Matt Hayward, De Bier Haus owner, has opened the Mount Brewing Company in the former Stock Exchange restaurant but is still sticking in the Strand although will be rebranding in July.
Lone Star owner Trevor Donaghy is looking at revamping or moving into a new building and said he is considering a move to the new three storey building planned for where the Grumpy Mole used to be.
Over at one of the Strand's newest offerings, Comida, Luigi Barattieri is busy. A restaurateur with 17 years' experience in Tauranga, he owns two other Tauranga restaurants, Volare and Spuntino. Even in tough times, there is always a niche, as he saw with the wine, oyster and tapas bar.
"In these tough times, we are all chasing the same 20 per cent of people who are spending downtown. The remaining 80 per cent - 20 per cent are too old, 20 per cent are too young, 20 per cent have a mortgage and 20 per cent are too broke. We need more people - tourists, Aucklanders, business people with higher wages. The downtown will come alive again."
Jill Briscoe, of Goldfinger Nail and Body on Grey St, thinks it will. She plans to expand her salon by leasing the shop next door to open a downtown boutique day spa, which could serve hotels and businesses.
Cafe owner Jo Brown runs two Tauranga cafes, The Med and Elizabeth. The latter, in the award-winning ANZ building, has been a positive expansion.
"There is clear evidence that discretionary expenditure has diminished and maintaining viability now requires both hard work and good business decision-making."
Brown says that a move to the Mount may not deliver anticipated outcomes year round. Instead, she believes that more people could be brought to the city by a number of initiatives.
"Input of landlords in enhancing shopfronts and canopies ... the input of TCC in improving the city streetscape will make the city a more appealing shopping destination ... a proactive and dynamic Mainstreet will draw shoppers to the city."
Brown also suggests a vibrant waterfront that supports a range of activities would also bring in the punters, "An authentic Maori experience or a museum or an aquarium-anything that will draw people to the city."
Bernadette Rowlands, owner of High Street boutique is, as her trading name suggests, a firm believer in on-street shopping and the CBD. Over the nine years, she has evolved to suit the times.
"You have to be proactive. I pay levies to Mainstreet ... but I don't know what they do ... I would rather reward my customers ... we are all diverse businesses and what suits a $2 shop doesn't suit an upmarket boutique. I listen to my customers, and adapt."
In response to criticism of what Mainstreet Tauranga does, its manager Kirby Weis said, "Mainstreet Tauranga brands, markets and promotes the city centre as a destination (Downtown Tauranga) including advertising through the various medias.
"We also encourage and provide opportunities for involvement with Downtown Tauranga that our members can be part of, such as but not limited to the following: provide new members pack to new businesses, free advertising opportunities, free website postings and business listings, access to an email database of approximately 10,000 customers, hold seminars, workshops, breakfast clubs, business summits, and think tanks. Run business and shopping promotions, children and school holiday activities, produce the Downtown Tauranga Visitor Guide, produce and deliver monthly newsletters and regular email updates on things that are important or happening within the city centre. Facilitate, support and sponsor events for the city centre. Work with Tourism BOP and our members to encourage locals, visitors and cruise ship passenger to enjoy downtown Tauranga. Advocate on behalf of our members for the city centre including but not limited to submitting to Council on issues of importance and work closely with Tauranga City Council, councillors, city centre stakeholders and our members to ensure positive outcomes for the city centre."
Unaudited accounts from July through December 2012 show $130,030 is spent on sponsorship and promotions, $93,688 on wages, $3600 on staff expense accounts and there are other expenses including building, computer and software, advertising and a communications plan.
Mainstreet has nine board members. Anne Pankhurst represents the Chamber of Commerce, and Duarne Lankshear represents Priority One. Bill Campbell of Fancy That thinks the board should be wholly retailers.
"Mainstreet is under the control of Council through the Priority One board member and the Chamber of Commerce board member who have a huge influence in the output of Mainstreet. If the Mainstreet board was made up of business people as with the Mount's board we may have an active and responsive organisation.
"Mainstreet has no autonomy ... The Mainstreet board is made up of one employee from Priority One, one employee from Chamber of Commerce, three retailers, one accountant employee.one law firm employee, one from hospitality and one who is unemployed plus the odd councillor or two when the need arises. This is a very poor representation of the CBD."
In response, vice-chairwoman of Mainstreet, Anne Pankhurst, said: "It is a democratically elected board. We welcome nominations at the AGM. It is part of the constitution to have a representative from the Chamber of Commerce, and remember the CBD is not just retailers but a diverse group of people, which I think are represented."
Phillip Hunt, commercial real estate manager at Ray White, agrees the face of the CBD is changing. Hunt was the original Mainstreet Tauranga manager when it began in 1994. Although retail spaces are in flux, it is missing the point to see this as negative, he says.
"Downtown is not just a retail centre. The real opportunity here is for businesses. That will have a positive knock-on effect on retail as it will bring in spenders - often with relatively high incomes, who want food outlets, cafes, restaurants and boutique-like stores."
Hunt is seeing a trend of service businesses leasing ground floor space. In the Churchill building in Grey St, a former sewing shop is being replaced by offices. United Travel is moving into the former Vagabond store.
Lynn Bradley, of Bayleys Real Estate, agrees some ground-floor spaces make good offices but says there will always be demand for the prime locations on Devonport for retailers, citing Hallensteins, which is moving into the Goddards Centre on the corner of Devonport Rd.
Hunt says the challenge will be filling first-floor office space.
"If we can do this, the CBD will hum. It is still the most attractive place to be if you are a business, rather than being in the environs."
Even small businesses can now afford downtown space. Business cohabitation or office sharing is a new trend set to mushroom in Tauranga.
Self-employed marketing man Sheldon Nesdale shares Studio 64 above the Med Cafe in Devonport with other one-man businesses. They all used to work from home. Now they wouldn't have it any other way.
"We like the vibe here. The recipe for co-working is a bunch of people with an entrepreneurial culture, positive attitude, growth ambitions, creativity, proximity to business clients (who are seldom retailers) and cheap rent above street level."
Regional economic development organisation Priority One facilitates another downtown working space, Ignition. More are expected to emerge.
Priority One chief executive Andrew Coker says initiatives on the boil will bring bigger businesses into the downtown, creating a new demographic of consumers with higher discretionary spending power.
These include 1700 students in the new tertiary campus, a 200-room hotel and 500 capacity conference centre in Durham St. The relocation of Trustpower, again with Durham St as a proposed site, will bring in 450 people.
Attracting businesses to relocate here is the aim of Priority One's Business Attraction Campaign, which promotes the CBD destination nationally. Max Mason, chief executive of Tauranga's Chamber of Commerce, agrees the downtown is undergoing a period of transition.
"Constrained retail spending as a result of the GFC (global financial crisis) and Psa is still with us, and some shops have had to close. Online purchasing is hammering retail heavily. Earthquake strengthening activities is closing some retailers temporarily, but it doesn't look good. For the retailers in a mixed-use CBD it can be hard to compete with specialist retail developments such as malls ... allowing office-based firms to locate along main routes, outside the CBD, has reduced foot traffic."
Despite this seeming litany of woes, Mason says there are many reasons to be optimistic: growing consumer confidence, the new hotel, the new police station, the on-going waterfront developments, the tertiary campus, the establishment of TrustPower's head office, and the potential for tourism.
Pankhurst dismisses any notion of a crisis.
She says the CBD is the only commercial, cultural and civic hub for the region.
"To only see the CBD as a retail precinct is limiting how you approach the different mix of activities and, therefore, people who populate the CBD."
Mayor Stuart Crosby says the council has made changes in the city's planning rules to encourage more investment in the city centre.
"Despite the impact that the global financial crisis has had on the local and national economies, the city centre has seen year-on-year growth in the value of building consents from 2009-10: $4 million, through to 2010-11: $19.7 million and in 2011/12: $37.7 million."
Councillor Murray Guy says the proliferation of small business in residential areas is impacting on the downtown but recent changes in the Proposed City Plan, will stem this migration and home-based businesses will continue to have restrictions and standards to comply with.
Max Mason adds that Tauranga is better positioned than many other New Zealand towns.
"Empty shops in a CBD isn't a positive look, but it's a mistake to assume they indicate there is a crisis.
"Rather they indicate the CBD is changing its identity ... other New Zealand CBDs are also experiencing unwelcome change, but we are one of the few with a growing populace."
Boosting a downtown from grassroots up
Can the downtown be the beating heart of this populace?
Yes - but it's up to the people.
So says international expert on cities Peter Kageyama. He is in Tauranga for workshops with city leaders, including Priority One and Mainstreet.
Kageyama is a US community and economic development consultant and author of For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Their Places. His method of boosting a downtown is from the grassroots up, helping identify what makes cities lovable, what motivates citizens to do extraordinary things for their places and how some cities use that energy to fill in the gaps that "official" city makers have left when resources disappear.
Kageyama believes there is a renewed interest in downtowns, and "absolutely" a place for high-street shopping.
"We may like the convenience, selection or pricing of the big box retail outlets, but they are not distinctive ... High St cannot directly compete with Tesco, The Warehouse or Walmart, but they can provide unique and authentic retail experiences that you would not be able to get elsewhere."
Kageyama says some issues seen in Tauranga are the same world over - including parking and disinvestment. But the things that bring in the people are simple things.
"Increase people's ability to see other people and you will be well on your way towards a better, more vital downtown. We are social creatures and if you can increase the people-watching opportunities, you start to improve downtown. This can be downtown seating, a dog park, more outdoor cafes or events. Bigger infrastructure and projects can follow but start with this simple notion."
There is a collective responsibility across the Bay to make it happen, he says.
"Downtowns are the psychic centres of places. If your downtown is a ghost town or less than vibrant, that perception carries over to the region as a whole. Revitalise your downtown and you provide a boost in confidence, energy and excitement for your entire area."
It is a view echoed by those passionate about revitalising Tauranga, summed up by Ms Pankhurst.
"Come and spend your time and money in the heart of the city - for the love of the city."
Next Saturday in the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend: What the shoppers think
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