Fifty vacant shops - 10 more than this time last year - stare out at shoppers in Whangarei's CBD, with some sitting empty for four years.
A Northern Advocate survey of the CBD's 10 main streets and The Strand Arcade found 50 empty shops, compared with 40 when the count was conducted in January last year.
This is despite Whangarei District Council pouring $2.7 million into an inner city beautification project, in an attempt to lure shoppers and retailers back into the area.
Peter Peeters, Commercial and Industrial broker at Harcourts, said the situation in the CBD was grim.
"It's got worse - that's absolutely right," Mr Peeters said. "It would be very safe to say we've got retail spaces that have been sitting empty for three to four years."
The survey covered The Strand, Vine, Bank St (as far as Dent St), upper Dent St, Walton St, and Cameron (from Walton St only), Quality, Robert, Rathbone, James and John Sts.
Mr Peeters pointed to the most recent Commercial Property Investor Confidence study from Colliers International, which ranked Whangarei at the bottom of the 11 centres surveyed.
He said WDC could do more to reduce overheads and make it easier to invest.
"Another part of the problem is local people need to shop local. Get in there and buy your bloody stuff here. Also, local retailers could wake their ideas up and give better service, so it's right across the board."
Sam Golder owns clothing boutique One Seven and said "crippling" commercial rates had forced her into a smaller upstairs unit in the CBD.
"[Rates] are absolutely extortionately high. It's really really hard for the independents to be in existence, let alone turn a profit ... It's a shame because its ripping the heart and soul out of the district," she said.
She described the vibe in the CBD as "depressing", but said it was good to see some brave young boutique owners "taking the plunge".
"There's so much that could be done, rather than have empty shops landlords could rent out at reduced rates or offer rent holidays. There are so many creative people in this town but there's just no options for them in the CBD," Ms Golder said.
Whangarei District Councillor Phil Halse chairs council's 20/20 Inner City Development Committee and said a commercial rates review could not come soon enough.
"If we want businesses in town we've got to support them [and] if we've got a problem we need to address it straight away, not wait 18 months," he said in relation to a number of complaints about commercial rates anomalies received last year.
Cr Halse said a lack of "business nous" among current councillors was slowing down development and making it difficult to invest in Whangarei, but was confident the $2.7 million laneway project was a good move.
"We start by making our main street strong, then we go on to join the Town Basin up with the [Cameron St] Mall."
A plan change allowing inner-city apartments; a potential civic centre in the CBD; more green space in the city by Canopy Bridge; and the Hundertwasser Art Centre would all add interest and activity throughout the inner-city area, Cr Halse said.
WDC chief executive Rob Forlong said a thriving CBD would "take time".
"Our town area is quite big for our population. Assuming we grow we will grow into it ... I think part of our job is to make that central part of town attractive to both locals and tourists," he said.