Peter Calder: Market revival long time coming

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Auckland’s famous Victoria Park Market needs a rescue plan to confirm the big future tenants were promised.

Retailers in the new complex have been known to hand in their keys and walk away. Photo / Chris Gorman
Retailers in the new complex have been known to hand in their keys and walk away. Photo / Chris Gorman

As an escape from the bustle of the city, there could hardly be a better place than Victoria Park Market. As I sat for 10 minutes at one of the concrete tables one morning last week, only a sparrow disturbed the tranquillity.

It was a weekday, admittedly, but as I wandered around, my footsteps echoed off glass frontages of empty shops, where aluminium joinery has made a jarringly unhappy marriage with Victorian brickwork. Glum faces peered from empty shops. In one, selling tacky souvenirs, a sign offered "50% off everything".

It was a far cry from the market's feted opening in the early 1980s, when a "celebrity walk" of handprints in concrete seemed terribly sophisticated.

Like the extinct Cook St and Browns Mill markets, VPM had tie-dyed T-shirts, sarongs and incense by the yard. But there was also clothing labelled "designer" and the novelty of espresso coffee.

A line of stalls sold cheap ready-cooked Asian food, which was new to me.

Gradually, through the 90s, VPM became a $2-shop precinct. Customers stayed away, retailers left, rats moved in. These days the rats have gone, but the customers are still staying away and some retailers are leaving or on the point of leaving.

The $120-million redevelopment launched in 2008 became $20 million when the credit crunch hit. Four years ago, developer David Henderson, the man behind the Princes Wharf Hilton Hotel, was declared bankrupt. Inland Revenue came after him too.

The bank cooked up a rescue package. Stage 1 of the development opened in late 2011, and stage 2 in March last year. But business is not so much booming as whimpering.

Henderson, the kind of man newspapers like to euphemistically describe as colourful, is still working at the market, though his bankrupt status prevents him from having a management role. He remains bullishly, even aggressively, protective of the enterprise, however, and loses no time in telling me that he's sick of "negative reporters".

When I ask him about the discontent of retailers who say that the place is a commercial disaster, he professes to have no idea what I am talking about and refers to building delays as if they were a minor hiccup, before enlarging on the glittering future just around the corner.

I heard the same thing in 2012. Reviewing a restaurant in Drake St, overlooking the market, for this paper's Sunday sister, I inquired about the forlorn and empty state of the market and a flash boy from a leasing firm scorned my negativity and promised imminent glory days.

For the tenants who spoke to me (anonymously; they have enough problems as it is) the glory days have been too long coming. "People are throwing their keys on the counter and walking away," says one. "Some of them have spent many tens of thousands on fitting out."

Another tells me that there is not, and never has been, an overarching vision of what the place is (the archaic "VPM 1905" brand is unfortunate as well as inaccurate; what was built in 1905 was a rubbish destructor) and the chances of imposing one are slim now that the place has been sold off as more than three dozen individual titles.

Many tenants signed up on the back of promises that the place would be fully operational for the 2011 Rugby World Cup and that tourist buses would roll up in endless processions.

But Aucklanders steer clear of places where tourists go (when did you last browse through the sheepskin rugs and All Black kit in the shops at the foot of Queen St?). What's more, cruise-ship passengers are notoriously shy of food outlets; fed and watered on board, they don't eat and drink.

It may be, of course, that great days are just around the corner. Henderson tells me that "professional managers" have just been appointed. I hear a press release comes out tomorrow, but nobody returned my calls about that.

But experienced heads have looked the place over (restaurateur and 2013 mayoral contender John Palino and Andrew Davies, who created Ponsonby Central) and walked away. "I don't know how to fix it," the latter told me.

It's not public money that's at stake here, although individuals and their families are hurting. But it's not too much to say that this is part of Auckland's history that is under threat. Any plans - or rescue efforts - need to bear in mind that there is a public interest as well as a private one.

- NZ Herald

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