Whangārei investors, business owners and residents predict a dark future for the city unless major changes revitalise retail in town.
Empty shop fronts have long become an established part of Whangārei's cityscape.
A new survey conducted by the Northern Advocate shows that 48 out of 315 ground floor premises in the CBD are currently vacant.
Big retailers like Whitcoulls, Typo and Malletts Fashion have left an obtrusive void in the heart of Whangārei.
The abandoned premises in town are on people's minds. Our reporter in the field was frequently confronted by passers-by talking about the lifeless CBD.
Rob Griffin is the owner of Treat Cakes and Pastries in The Strand arcade, which currently counts 11 empty stores.
"There has been a fair degree of obvious neglect in the CBD," Griffin said.
"It's a shame. Whangārei is a lovely city with a lot of potential. We saw that, and that's why we invested our money here.
"But there's a lack of pride towards the city by the decision-makers."
Griffin's café stands out with its colourful storefront between taped-up ones in a particular abandoned part of the mall.
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Lease sign promise three-month holiday rent to lure new tenants in. There's a clear contrast to the once bustling atmosphere of the arcade.
Peter Peeters has worked as a commercial real estate agent in Whangārei for 22 years. He believes high rates are at the core of the problem which sees the decaying CBD.
"In the city mall, rates can be around $50 per square metre; then you still have to add insurance.
"Commercial rates are seven times the basic rates. That's why businesses struggle to survive," Peeters said.
"Council is working inefficiently. They have this 'No, we can't attitude' instead of 'Yes, we can', which is just pathetic. They are completely out of touch with the community."
Whangārei District Council have long identified the issue of a dying town centre and adopted new policies to tackle the issue with the City Core Precinct Plan which was released in May this year.
The city core encompasses the area framed by Dent, Walton and Bank Streets, which includes James, John, Rathbone and Cameron Streets as well as The Strand and Civic arcades.
In its gist, the plan targets to facilitate connections in and to the CBD to make it more attractive for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as improve traffic flow.
Council also believes that the city core should become more flexible in its layout and bring more residents into the vicinity.
According to the policy, commercial zones would shift, allowing for residential, commercial, entertainment and service-based land use combined in one building block.
Whangārei District Council strategy manager Tony Horton says council had been working on several short-term projects, including footpath upgrades in the CBD and connections to the waterfront.
"One of the aspects we're focussing on with the City Core Precinct Plan is to make the city more walkable," Horton said.
"For upcoming long-term projects, we're looking at consulting with businesses and people who use businesses in town to take their views on board."
Horton said it would be a matter of consulting with the newly-elected council and looking at the upcoming budget plans.
Earlier surveys conducted by the Northern Advocate show that vacancy numbers haven't come down in the past years. In 2014, the publication counted 40 empty shops and then saw a steep rise in 2016 with 50 empty shops.
To date, 15.2 per cent of the premises on ground level is untenanted, indicating a notably higher vacancy rate than other New Zealand cities.
Latest data from 2019 by Colliers International show vacancy rates in Auckland retail centres including Newmarket, Ponsonby and Takapuna fluctuate between 6.2 and 6.8 per cent.
In Wellington, the least profitable area is Courtney Place with 11.8 per cent of retail premises empty.
Local property owner Richard Langdon says nothing had improved in Whangārei in the recent years.
"People are sick of coming into town because council are not accommodating for them. People are absolutely pissed off."
Langdon says returns for landlords were not significant as many were subsidising their premises.
"The rates are ridiculously high, and if things continue like this, the CBD will be completely empty soon."
Langdon suggests a short-term fix by introducing two-hour free parking around the city centre.
Drivers can currently park for free for two hours on the top level of the Central City Carpark, corner John and Robert Streets. Parking fees in the CBD vary between $1 and $2 an hour.
Whangārei District Council strategy manager Horton says that council had been focusing on exciting car park at the edge of the city.
"For example, the Water Street car park is not well used. We're looking at how we can make it more attractive for people," he said.
"In the long-term, we're also considering new car parking buildings in town."
Whangārei business owner Shirley James points out that parking in Kerikeri is free and says the town is busier than ever.
James has run her photography shop out of Cameron St for the past 33 years.
She and her staff recently moved to John St, saving money in rates and improving their location with car parks in front of the shop.
James said it was hard for her customers to find parking and they had repeated been ticketed while visiting her store.
"If you look towards The Warehouse [in Okara Park], it's packed because they have no parking fees.
"Some of the parking meters are still coin-operated. It's such an easy fix, but the council doesn't do anything.
"The centre of town is rotting. We need a damn good clean-up here."
The Northland Chamber of Commerce has identified the lack of business in town as a pressing issue and has partnered up with volunteers from the Whangārei community to offer solutions for the increasingly deserted CBD.
Together with Dr Maggie Buxton, Matt Keene and Sarah Blithe, the chamber is currently working on space curation project which would see more entertainment, events and art coming into Whangārei.
Space curators – opposed to decorators – are bringing different elements that don't necessarily are the same but work together as an ensemble creating an experience for participants.
"This is project is part of a bigger strategy to make shops in town more viable," Buxton said.
"We are looking at how we can repurpose a number of spaces more creatively and efficiently."
The plans would see new art installations, educational events, music and other creative pop-ups revitalising and reactivating unused spaces and moving foot traffic into the CBD innovatively.
Buxton, Keene and Blithe are part of a networking group who previously space curation projects in Whangārei. The new initiative is designed to last for a longer period to create sustainable impact.
"We need to encourage people to come here. The city needs a complete overhaul," Buxton said.
"We're looking at establishing social and cultural infrastructure with tangible parkways. We want to build different ways of engaging for people to build lasting relationships. Then we'll see a more powerful change."
Buxton says a place needed spirit, "There's a difference between what you see with your eyes and feel with your hearts. We need a lovely sense of pride for this town."
The word on the street
Residents and business owners have been raising concerns about the increasing number of empty shops in Whangārei. The Northern Advocate took it to the streets and asked where people prefer to go shopping and what could be done to revitalise the CBD.
Axle Crawford (Whangārei)
"Okara Park is too crowded for me. I rather go somewhere closer to town. For the CBD, I think it would be good to have more entertainment."
Tilana Pienaar (Kaiwaka)
"For small errands and groceries I go to Okara Park, to Kmart, The Warehouse and Countdown. For clothes, I go to the North Shore. More clothing shops at affordable prices would be great here."
Jeremy Tauri (Whangārei)
"I usually go to Okara to do my groceries. But it really depends on where I am. I'm quite a bit mobile. Parking doesn't make a difference to me. It would help if we could divert the pedestrian flow from the Loop into town. And we need more variety of shops."
Clint Wharfe (Kamo)
"I do my groceries in Tikipunga and all other shopping in Okara. Lower rents would help to revitalise the CBD, and keeping it safe."
Mark Winter (Onerahi)
"I like to stay local and shop in Onerahi. There's just nowhere to park in town. New big parks look nice, but looking nice and being practical are two different things."
Mary Hodgson (Whangārei)
"I mostly go to the stores in the CBD, sometimes The Warehouse too. The CBD is quite depressing, though. It would be good to get some popular chains in here like Burger Fuel, McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts."