Wheels have started turning on an almost $4 million overhaul of main street Masterton that will come too late for a mounting roster of business-owners quitting their CBD premises in the town.
Several businesses have shut their doors in past weeks or were on the brink of closure including King Street Live, Verily, Intersection, Legal Theft, and Save the Children.
Numerous other CBD premises remain empty including three in the Master Mall, two in the building that formerly housed the ANZ bank, two bordering Countdown supermarket, a retail site in each of the former Post Office building and further south in Queen St neighbouring NumberOne Shoes, a large site neighbouring the Public Trust Building in Perry St and a small site across the road in the same street, and three in the Star Block, of which two are to soon reopen.
The latest closures have been blamed on ill health, business mergers, ownership changes, or shifts within or beyond the central commercial area of the town. A lack of trade had forced others to shut, the Wairarapa Times-Age was told.
Vera Aperloo, owner of the Verily clothing shop, opened her business about two and a half years ago. The 22-year-old said family had been vital to her staying afloat and she had also worked part-time as a nanny to make ends meet.
"I'm closing because I've sat here pretty much as a volunteer for the past two years, I haven't earnt a cent," she said. "I could have shut the doors earlier I guess but I stayed open because there's a lot of down time and I was completing a bachelor in applied economics by correspondence as well. But that's finished now."
Ms Aperloo will shut the doors by the end of the month, as will entertainment venue King Street Live, before she shifts to Auckland to work as a bridal consultant.
"The costs are just too high. My landlord was quite reasonable with rent but I know people who are paying twice as much and then there's the rates, which have no real return and is a lot of money for a small business."
Masterton mayor Lyn Patterson said it was "always sad" when businesses close although there were new firms coming to the district as well as "some significant commercial work later in the year".
Council will have close to $4 million for the CBD upgrade by 2018, she said, which will come after a $400,000 upgrade of the Lansdowne shopping precinct, a revamp of the town library, and a Masterton Lands Trust plan to create an arts village in northern Queen St.
The CBD was last revamped in 1995 and council had "brought forward some money put aside for that upgrade and an urban designer will be engaged soon", Mrs Patterson said.
Futureproofing the CBD and earthquake compliance and resilience were major concerns and "our CBD could consequently look very different from what it does today".
"We need a CBD with vibrancy to attract people in to town. We don't run businesses but what we can do is make the area as attractive as possible for business owners and shoppers alike. But our big push will be getting the huge amount of community input we will need before any work begins."
Former Masterton mayor Bob Francis said Masterton as a provincial centre was not alone with its CBD problems and he agreed community consultation was crucial.
"I think if you look at where retailing is going nationally and internationally there's a need to condense the CBD, which won't happen easily.
"Online sales are increasing too and taking people away from retail stores and that will have an impact as well, and to survive against the chain stores specialists have to be specialists, be different, and offer good quality products and service," he said.
Stephanie Gundersen-Reid, chief executive of Wairarapa Chamber of Commerce, said the ebb and flow of CBD businesses in Masterton should be monitored and was relatively healthy. "It is something we need to keep an eye on but there are other towns that are struggling far more. Maybe we do have to rejig the CBD and look at uses and actually have a plan to it, and maybe the council do need to do something a little sooner than planned. But at least they've started now."