Economists have written them off and their educated young are leaving. Still they refuse to lie down and die quietly. Some are reinventing themselves in a bid to breathe life into our zombie towns.

Roger Matthews walks among the undead. A "refugee" from Auckland, Matthews has fled the big city in favour of Wairoa, perched at the northern tip of Hawke's Bay. He's left behind 1.38 million people in the bustling, booming City of Sails to live with 8,000 others straddling the mouth of the Wairoa River.

Those folk live on the Palmerston North-Gisborne railway line, closed since Cyclone Bola swept through in 1988.

What started life as a whaling station and flax trading post found new fame, claiming the Top Town title after winning the last episode of the final series when the show ended in 1990. The TV contest returned in 2009. Wairoa didn't.

If it sounds quiet, it is. In fact, this is a zombie town. The kind of place that needs its lights turned off for the good of the rest of the country, as some economists would have it.

Advertisement

Trying to save Wairoa and other heartland towns like it up and down the country is a waste of precious time and resources. They're half-dead anyway. Put the zombies down, they say.

But Matthews hasn't moved to Wairoa to help with the final solution. He's there to breathe life into a zombie.


Drivers on State Highway 3 into Wanganui will be familiar with the Zombie Land sign. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle

"Zombie town" is click bait, a clever catchphrase that has been headline fodder for weeks. Coined by Shamubeel Eaqub, who works at the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, to describe some of the country's most beleaguered provincial centres, it's raised hackles in the heartlands.

Eaqub's book, Growing Apart, puts forward the argument that some of our small towns have passed the point of no return. He claims their economies are in freefall and the best course of action is a mass exodus, leaving the terminally ill towns to die in peace.

Some may be bristling at Eaqub's hypothesis but there's no denying some regions are waging a battle against declining populations and floundering economies.

Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch may be in expansion mode, but this has been at the expense of the regions, as young people flock to the cities for work and opportunities; and companies centralise operations.

Population levels in the small towns are stagnant or in many cases slowly dropping. And Statistics New Zealand figures are revealing. The gross domestic product per person is $35,068 in Northland and $34,472 in Gisborne. Auckland's GDP per person is close to $50,000.

If we are to believe Eaqub, these trends will continue to put pressure on the heartland for years. By this analysis, areas like Manawatu, Wanganui, East Cape and Northland are dying and extending their lifespan is a waste of time and money.

"It's horrible to say but yes, we have zombie towns and some of them do have to close," he said on TV3's The Nation. "And you know it's going to be devastating for those communities but it will be better for New Zealand if we target our resources in places that have some hope of growing and creating prosperity."

It all may sound like doom and gloom in the provinces but this isn't the whole story. Around the country some small towns have been galvanised and are aiming to turn their fortunes around.

Fuelled by innovative thinking and imagination, those behind the attempts want to give hope - and new life - to towns deemed in terminal decline. They want to prove that although our cities are booming, this doesn't necessarily spell the end of life in the provinces.

Among them is Matthews, who has been appointed Wairoa's first transformation manager. It's a slightly pompous job title, one you'd expect of a job slasher in a cut-throat corporate role, but for Wairoa it's a position the council has created in an attempt to inject new life into the struggling town.

Matthews describes himself as a "refugee from Auckland": he's been Wairoa's transformation manager for just three months. He had years of experience in local council in Auckland and North Shore before the amalgamation, and recently held a senior role at Auckland University of Technology.

But he missed local council ("people will probably think I'm mad for saying that," he laughs) and started looking around the country for jobs that were a good fit. The transformation manager role in Wairoa sounded ideal. He's charged with instigating change within council, working to improve communication between the council and community, and helping to generate economic upturn in the region. Matthews acknowledges that there's a lot to be done but is determined to remain positive.

"Wairoa's had a bad reputation - people often associate it with gangs. But I've probably only seen one person in gang patches since I've been here."

He says that Wairoa had been "a typical declining rural town", that internal politics in council weren't good, and that it was in danger of going into freefall.

But he contends that the appointment of new CEO Fergus Power in March has breathed new life into the council and is determined this will result in improved outcomes for the community.


Roger Matthews. Photo / John Cowpland

"Wairoa has incredible natural beauty, is the cheapest place in New Zealand for farming dairy, and is well situated for travellers driving between Gisborne and Napier," he says.

They are trying to make the town an attractive stop for travellers by encouraging freedom camping along the river's edge, and putting in place other infrastructure that will encourage people to stay overnight.

He says that the council has also developed programmes to attract "young minds into the district".

"We have an arrangement with University of Auckland Law School and University of Waikato that will give students the opportunity to work here over their summer breaks and earn credits towards their courses."

He says the students will work on a range of issues around local government, community trusts and Maori land. "We will be able to draw on their fresh ideas and expertise, without having to expend large amounts of money in the process."

Matthews and Wairoa are not alone. Eaqub's call to let the zombies die was the catalyst for a parade in Wanganui, an event that was a celebration of the town.

"We know people were hurt and upset by what was very skewed reporting of the state of our town. Wanganui is a great place to live and there are many positive things happening here across many sectors," said Julie Herewini, who co-ordinated the event.

For many of these towns, Maori land and the Maori economy could play a key role in the future. Wairoa, for example, has a Maori population of 62 per cent and much of the land in the region is iwi owned.

Economist Ganesh Nana from Business and Economic Research Limited (BERL) has been working alongside the Maori economic sector for 15 years. He says the resources Maori hold in the regions must be used judiciously for the regions to grow.

"It has to happen. The development of this land is critical for the regions and the New Zealand economy." He says that although much attention is focused on the economic boom of the cities, the provinces are still the backbone of our economy.

"We have spent a large part of the past century trying to diversify our economy, but a significant part of our economy is still land-based. Maori need to look at ways of moving their land up the value chain - using it intelligently - not just for producing milk powder and lamb."

He says Maori-owned land in the regions has the potential to be used in new ways. "There needs to be diversity in products derived from the land - honey, avocados, wine, kiwifruit, apples - and there needs to be research and development money invested to find new applications and markets for these products."

And there are success stories to give hope to the zombies.

Making better use of land in the regions is one way to breathe new life into communities, but some locals have found other ways to arrest their towns' failing fortunes.

Adrienne Staples is the mayor of South Wairarapa, which includes Martinborough and Greytown. She says that the centralisation of the banks and soaring interest rates for farmers led to a huge downturn in the 1970s and 80s. People left and money haemorrhaged.

But the growth in the popularity and understanding of wine culture in the mid-1980s saw the area, which has long been known for its pinot noir grapes, expand and prosper.

"People from Wellington also began to realise it was the perfect place for a weekend home," says Staples. "Organically, the shops and cafes started coming to the town."

The town is now booming. Martinborough is a wine tourism destination and popular weekend spot for Wellingtonians, and its wine production area increased more than two and a half times in the past 15 years.

The regular Toast Martinborough festival has played a large part in this boom, with 10,000 people flocking to the region each November.


Julie Herewini. Photo / Wanganui Chronicle

Greytown has also developed a name for itself as a weekend destination. The small town with elegant Victorian architecture is a shopping mecca, with clothing boutiques, cafes and vintage stores.

Murray Langham owns Schoc Chocolates in Greytown. A former Wellingtonian, he moved to Greytown for the cheap rent in the late 1990s to write his popular Chocolate Therapy book.

The hypnotherapist and counsellor also has a chef background, and decided to set up a chocolate store in Greytown in the late 1990s after visiting Europe.

"There was a space available in the town for $50 a week rent," he says. "It's not that cheap now."

The store and factory now employs nine people and has proven so popular that Langham is setting up a second store in Wellington.

Langham has seen Greytown go from sleepy village to a holiday destination in the two decades he's lived there.

"It was quiet and the rents were extremely cheap. Now there is so much going on in the region - festivals, people visiting for shopping. The general consensus among people working in the town is that things are going well."

Shannon, in Horowhenua, has also undergone an extreme makeover in the past two decades. Horowhenua mayor Brendon Duffy says the town "wasn't the flashest. It had a pub at each end and there were some pretty rough sort of people living here."

Then one of the pubs burned down and the town began to change. "A savvy businesswoman decided to take over some of the empty shops. Then two or three others opened stores in the town," says Duffy. "People started stopping here to shop on their way to and from Wellington."

Locals started to take pride in the town, beautification projects in conjunction with council were undertaken and the town started to come back to life.

"It's now kind of a destination shopping location," says Duffy. "The cafes are buoyant and the people are stopping on their way from Hawke's Bay to Wellington to eat and shop. It's turned around."

He says the presence of the world-class Whitewater Park, 5km away, also makes the town a drawcard for visitors. "I've been in council for 20 years and I saw Shannon at its worst. It's now at its best," he says.

Back in Wairoa, Matthews knows he has his work cut out. But there are glimmers of a brighter future. "A local jeweller does watch repairs for shops all over the country from his Wairoa shop. His business is in no way affected by his remote regional location, as he can get watches next-day couriered to anywhere in the country.

"But his overheads are greatly reduced."

That businessman has monthly shop and workshop rental and rates that are less in total than the weekly rent and rates for even his Hastings store. "Plus, he works and lives in a friendly small town on the edge of a river ... All part of the joy of small towns."