A new plan to revitalise Tauranga's CBD and fill as many of the city's 155 vacant spaces as possible could provide some relief for businesses and break the perception of a struggling city centre.
Mainstreet organisation Downtown Tauranga has introduced an initiative to find a use for vacant areas and better support the business community in the CBD.
Business and creative experts say the initiative could help the city's revitalisation, provide immediate relief for shop owners and some reprieve from the "construction disruption".
The organisation received $120,000 from the Tauranga City Council and Priority One at the end of last year to fund a six-month pilot Activate Vacant Spaces programme that launched in February.
The programme allows business owners to "hire" a vacant CBD space for exhibitions, displays, events, pop-up shops, performances and more for a couple of days, a week or up to a month.
Downtown Tauranga's brand strategist Sally Cooke said the programme looked at how to attract business owners into the CBD who could potentially become medium and long term tenants.
"The programme has the ability to contribute to the economic development of our city centre and to deliver permanent tenancies," she said.
It allows the organisation to partner with property owners and real estate agents to drive short-term tenancies, while it sought a long-term one, Cooke said.
"Think Airbnb but from a retail perspective."
Cooke said the organisation was sick of the perception that the CBD was a wasteland and had worked on the strategy after identifying an urgent need for a different approach in the city centre.
"The future of the CBD is very bright. Right now, though, we have some real challenges to address to support our existing businesses and tenancies," she said.
"We need to be actively looking at ways to retain our existing businesses and attract new ones by creating more reasons for people to come to the city centre and spend time in those businesses."
Cooke said the civic, cultural and commercial hub of the city centre had been forgotten for too long.
"We want to create a city centre that people want to be in ... We have a long way to go, but rather than wait for the big developments to come on line we can do more now, actively, to contribute to the look, feel and offerings in our CBD."
Downtown Tauranga's latest figures show there are 155 empty stores, alleyways, walls, rooftops, shop windows, and open spaces in the CBD - including 12 that were under construction.
"... But we need to be realistic that some of those vacant spaces simply can't be filled at the moment as they are needing to go through or are going through seismic strengthening works."
Cooke said it was difficult to compare whether the number of empty spaces had dropped due to changing floor space and new construction.
"For example, when the Farmers building was demolished this was classified as one tenancy. When the building reopens, it will be classified as multiple tenancies, which will increase the numbers again. While the building does not exist it drops off our numbers.
"There have also been a few new businesses move into the city."
Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell likened the programme to a smile that was missing a few teeth, with dental implants put in until they could be filled permanently.
"Rebuilding a city, which has been left to languish does not happen overnight ...," he said.
"These activations are going to be very important while we are doing everything else we can to build the CBD up."
Tauranga Chamber of Commerce chief executive Matt Cowley said the initiative encouraged landlords into the conversation about the city's revitalisation and created something new to attract people who hadn't visited the CBD for a while.
"This initiative is a great way to engage those thousands of workers who travel into the CBD daily, to see all the changes happening on the ground floor shops and get excited about growth in their city. It also encourages them to stay in the central city longer," he said.
"The CBD's long-term future looks bright, but the ground floor tenants need this immediate relief and support to break the current perception before they can move forward."
Priority One chief executive Nigel Tutt said it was a great initiative that was targeted at bringing a wide range of people into the city centre.
"Providing interesting activations for our community to visit is really important to aid CBD revitalisation."
Creative Bay of Plenty general manager Meg Davis said the intention of the pilot programme was to integrate more arts and cultural experiences into the heart of the city.
Davis said the programme offered more experiences for local and international visitors, the potential for retailers to generate higher spend, and some reprieve from the "construction disruption".
"It gives us an excuse to fall back in love with our city ... To generate opportunity. To test concepts. To play."
Try before you buy
It never seemed to be the right time for Vanessa Laval-Glad to move her photography and video business from her home studio into the city centre.
But the Welcome Bay photographer was able to open her studio in the heart of the CBD after signing up to the Activate Vacant Spaces programme.
Laval-Glad opened her business Laval Photo and Video in Red Square on February 10 and used the space until March 12.
"It really was just good timing. I had no idea about Activate Vacant Spaces at the time," she said.
"There were some other spaces they were looking at for us but I wanted to be in the hub where people walk past all the time. I love the feel of the Red Square."
Since moving to the CBD, Laval-Glad said business had been "really good".
"I understand that retail isn't great down here. But my target is corporates and businesses. For me, it has worked really well because there are a lot of businesses here.
"They walk around here in their lunchtimes and most business people need a headshot."
Being able to try before she buys allowed her to see what business would be like for her in the city centre and consider taking up a permanent tenancy in the CBD.
"I am exploring options. It is a whole new community to be part of."
Being in the CBD had also given her an inside look at how other businesses worked in the area.
"The amount of work some businesses need to do to get people here is really quite sad when this should be the go-to ... I feel sorry for them."
She believed the initiative would help bring more people into the city centre.
Activate Vacant Spaces
As at December 2019, there were 531 premises occupied out of a possible 686 - an occupancy rate of 77.4 per cent.
As at December 2018, there were 566 premises occupied out of a possible 687 - an occupancy rate of 82.38 per cent.
As at December 2017, there were 576 premises occupied out of a possible 687 - an occupancy rate of 83.84 per cent.
As at December 2016, there were 552 premises occupied out of a possible 699 - an occupancy of 78.96 per cent.
As at December 2015, there were 526 premises occupied out of a possible 724 - an occupancy of 72.65 per cent.
*These are not all shop premises. They are all empty spaces comprising of commercial, hospitality, service and retail and could include an empty site on the third floor of a building.
*Led by Downtown Tauranga, the initiative is a collaboration between the Tauranga Art Gallery, Creative Bay of Plenty for the Tauranga City Council and Priority One.
Source: Downtown Tauranga