There's a renewed sense of optimism in the Christchurch business community.

Tuesday morning in central Christchurch, it's unseasonably warm - temperatures are pushing 30C by mid-morning.

A strong northwesterly is stirring up grit from the many construction sites, turning the city centre into a dust bowl- adding a swirl of noise and chaos to the ruined CBD.

But the workers and shoppers in the thick of it don't seem bothered at all. In fact, they look relaxed and upbeat.

It has been just over five years since the first Christchurch earthquake in 2010. It wouldn't be fair to say the repair and rebuild had gone smoothly, but there seems to be a renewed sense of optimism - at least in the business community.


Perhaps it is the fact that while cranes still dot the skyline - they are now there to put buildings up not to take them down.

The city remains the biggest business hub in the South Island and third largest contributor to national GDP behind Auckland and Wellington, but spending has shifted into different sectors with the rebuild.

Following the earthquakes there was concern that the central city would end up in a doughnut shape with businesses skirting the main square.

Certainly many moved out to the fringes in Addington and Riccarton.

But with the infrastructure and base repairs largely finished and the rebuild around 40 per cent completed for Christchurch as a whole, businesses are returning to the city centre.

"There's no doubt businesses are coming back and we're seeing that already," said Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce general manager Leeann Watson.

"A lot of the professional service firms in particular - Deloitte, Lane Neave, Wynn Williams.

"All businesses had to move out of the central city because it was closed down for a considerable amount of time, so they didn't have any choice but to go and set up elsewhere.


"What we're seeing now is those businesses have come back and are coming back."

According to many of Christchurch's government agencies, the coming year will be a significant one for the region in terms of business growth with a number of major construction projects set to be completed by this time next year, including retail development The Crossing, the ANZ centre and The Terraces development along the Avon River.

Canterbury Development Corporation chief executive Tom Hooper said GDP in the city was now back above the level it had reached prior to the quakes, adding that the return of some of the major firms to the central city was creating a snowball effect.

"The [larger firms are] the logical tenants for the CBD - the big five consulting firms, the banks, the major corporates with the likes of Vodafone that have committed to the innovation precinct," Hooper said.

"Having those guys come back in here builds the momentum in the CBD and then your tier two and tier three businesses take confidence from them being there, and say actually we need to be in the CBD as well."

Consulting firm Deloitte was one of the first major businesses in the region to commit to returning to the central city, with more than 100 of its staff moving into the new steel-and-glass office perched along the bank of the Avon River.


Slightly further down the road is the new 7000sq m Tait Communications building which currently houses 250 staff with room for 450.

And on the former triangle site on the opposite side of town, the new ANZ building is being developed with ANZ Bank and engineering firm Beca already signed on as tenants.

Deloitte Christchurch managing partner Michael Wilkes said the company had seen the benefits in being central to the rebuild with the intent to encourage more businesses to follow suit in the area.

Artist impression of The Promenade, Christchurch. Photo / Supplied
Artist impression of The Promenade, Christchurch. Photo / Supplied

"Quite shortly after the earthquake we decided as a firm that we wanted to be back in the CBD and I think a lot of the other businesses are really starting to take that same sort of leadership view as well, particularly now there's quite a critical mass starting to develop around this location from the big four accounting firms and a lot of the lawyers," Wilkes said.

"So by the time this development's finished there will be ourselves, KPMG, EY are going into the Ngai Tahu development and PwC the next block down.

"I think sometimes it takes one or two people to move and then the rest decide, well let's be near them.


"There were a number of us that were looking at moving back into the city and, once a couple of people commit to it, it gives others the confidence to follow."

As well as some of the larger businesses returning to the area, underlying sectors of the region were also doing well, with manufacturing, ICT and the export sector seeing strong growth.

Hooper said the city was hoping to encourage innovative and entrepreneurial businesses to base themselves in the region.

"Christchurch has its position as the centre of a very large regional rural hinterland, it will always have that, but actually the other underlying sectors like ICT, manufacturing and health really need to be growing strongly as well," Hooper said.

"Auckland is the major gateway city for New Zealand, no question, but Christchurch in many ways will be the second city in a number of other sectors," he said.

"ICT is growing really strongly here and there's a really burgeoning start-up and entrepreneurial space in the city and that kind of innovative, entrepreneurial, slightly edgier space is definitely somewhere Christchurch can go."


Despite the positive growth in the central city, Hooper said there were still a lot of decisions for the business community to make, adding that not all of the businesses that left the CBD were likely to return.

A number of companies had signed on to long-term leases in suburban or fringe areas and still had time left on these.

He said a key consideration was also the cost of moving back, saying that per square metre, rental in outlying suburbs would be significantly less than it would be in a new building in the centre of town.

Disruption to business was also a consideration with companies needing to decide whether to move into an area that was likely to be under construction for the next few years, or whether to wait until further down the track.

Business sentiment in the region may be more positive now the central city is starting to take shape, but the Chamber of Commerce's Leeann Watson acknowledged there was still a long way to go yet.

"There's still a lot of empty bits of land but most of them are spoken for which is really, really exciting," Watson said.


"There are still areas of Christchurch though that are finding it pretty tough and we can't underestimate that - those issues need to be sorted out as soon as possible."

The regeneration has not been without its setbacks.

In April, it was reported that a local investor group had cancelled plans to develop the site of the former BNZ House in Cathedral Square due to a lack of interested tenants.

The shortage of inner-city residential and apartment buildings has also led to an empty feeling in the evenings when businesses close and workers go home, but this is expected to change as new residential buildings go up.

According to Hooper, the main issue now was to keep momentum going, and to encourage continued investment in the CBD which he said would also help attract larger international businesses.

As the centre starts to take shape and how it will look when finished becomes clearer, the general mood in Christchurch is a much more positive one than it has been over the past few years.


Got the tourists, but beds are still a problem

As New Zealand Cup and Show Week approaches, Christchurch is preparing for an influx of tourists.

But Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism chief executive Tim Hunter is concerned there is still a lack of accommodation.

After the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, the number of hotels in the city centre dropped from 39 to eight.

There are 24 now in operation, but Hunter said this might not be enough for the peak tourism months.

"In terms of rooms, we're still 31 per cent behind where we were in 2010 which is a limiting factor, not all of the time but in our key tourism months of February and March.

"Tourism to New Zealand is really strong right now, particularly out of Asia with these new air services from China, but that is going to put us under pressure," he said.


"We've certainly got enough hotels in the provinces but in the peak months we won't have enough hotel rooms in the city."

He said that while this had helped push tourism out into the provinces, increasing visitor night numbers in areas such as Kaikoura, Hanmer, Methven and Twizel, central Canterbury should be pushing on with its anchor projects including the planned convention centre, needed after the original centre collapsed during the earthquakes.

Hunter said having a convention centre in the city brought in about $50 million worth of business a year, as well as filling up the city's hotels in the winter months during conference season.

He said at least six large investment organisations were planning to build hotels around the city centre as soon as work on building the convention centre started.

Despite concern over hotel room numbers, Hunter said visitors to the city were using other means of accommodation.

"When we did the summer survey last year we found that 40 per cent of international visitors were not staying in commercial accommodation, they were staying in friends rooms or through Airbnb or B&Bs.


So those other forms of accommodation and social media have been really quite good."

Off a lower base, Christchurch's tourism has been growing steadily, with international guest nights in Christchurch up 13 per cent last summer compared with overall guest nights in New Zealand which grew by just 6 per cent in the same period.

Christchurch's visitor centre business grew 20 per cent last year, and Hunter said numbers were already strong for the coming year, indicating the region was in for a good summer in terms of tourism.

He said the city was about a year away from having enough of the central city rebuilt to see a step change, but things were heading in the right direction.