Retailers are pouring in their own money and time to ensure the community's voice is heard in the council's latest project.
Submissions for Te Ara Hou, Whakatāne District Council's revitalisation of the central business district, close on Friday and, fearing the worst for their carparks, retailers are pulling out all the stops.
Hundreds of flyers have been printed and delivered, newspaper adverts run, and submissions gathered.
Retailers are worried the proposed revitalisation, which has no firm plans yet, will remove the Kakahoroa Drive carpark and replace it with a large green space, giant chess boards and basketball courts.
They say that would kill their businesses and create a CBD wasteland similar to Tauranga.
Paper Plus Whakatane store owner Graham Dennis took a half-page advert in the Whakatane Beacon last week asking the community to make a submission and save the carpark and CBD workers' jobs.
He said he did so because he didn't think the wider community knew enough about the proposed project.
"The carpark is convenient, and The Strand is the heartbeat of the town," he said.
"I serve around 500 customers per day in here and they need access. If you look at the Rotorua and Tauranga CBDs, they are struggling like hell and it's because they've had that access removed and with it their heartbeat. Have you ever seen a successful shopping centre without a carpark? I just don't see any gain in removing carparks."
Like many of the other Strand retailers, Dennis and his staff often struggle to find carparking and do not believe the suggested alternative carparks at the former Wally Sutherland site are close enough.
"I'm not sending my staff down past the skatepark when it's the middle of winter. It's cold, it's rainy and there are safety issues," he said.
"Security is bad enough out the back of here; I need to know my staff are safe and would have to accompany them down there."
He said staff who started at 10am often arrived much earlier to ensure they could get a park.
Dennis is not against development and considers himself forward thinking but believes the council needs to concentrate on getting the small things right first, such as removing graffiti, repairing footpaths, fixing and tidying up fairy lights in the trees and cleaning and emptying rubbish bins.
"If we're not taking pride in and maintaining what we have now, what's the point of installing more?"
He knows if the council does not spend the Provincial Growth Fund money allocated for the project it will lose it but does not think the council should be spending money for the sake of it.
He said the council should give it back if that was what the community wanted.
However, he likes a community-submitted design of a waka bridge from the river stopbank to Wharaurangi. Dennis said the response to his newspaper advert had been "amazing" and he had been collecting a lot of submissions on behalf of the community.
Subway Whakatāne owner Steven French has also poured money into ensuring the community is aware of retailers' concerns.
He has printed hundreds of flyers that have been delivered to businesses on The Strand and tucked under the windscreen wipers of every car in the Kakahoroa carpark.
"This has cost me a lot of money, but I feel really strongly about this and I wanted to heighten the awareness of the council's potential plans around this," he said.
"The proposed concepts are seriously flawed and far from revitalising the town, are going to do significant damage to the vibrancy and the businesses that operate in the township."
French said alternative carparking at Wally Sutherland's was "a joke".
"It's 750 metres from The Bean and 600m from Subway and Whakamax – people won't go."
Like many others, French was concerned at the safety of staff walking to work from satellite carparks, particularly those like his that open and close at "dark o'clock".
"I have serious security concerns for those employees, so we need dedicated all-day parking for those businesses who need it on The Strand. We could police that with a coupon system; if you don't display a coupon you get fined," he said.
Although he does not believe the council's existing plans will draw people in, French has put forward several concepts that he thinks will revitalise and beautify the CBD as well as attract more people.
He has suggested widening the riverbank over Kakahoroa Drive to create a much larger promenade to host markets, creating a lightshow on the riverbank like the one at the Mataatua wharenui, giving tourists waka rides on the river, replacing all Strand awnings with glass like at Wharaurangi, and a street performer contest to attract people from around the country.
"I also really like the waka bridge concept, which personally I think will be brilliant," he said.
"The waka bridge will attract people to the CBD because it will be a tourist attraction in its own right. It could be an iconic feature of our beautiful town."
French said blue lights underneath the bridge to represent the river would look great as well as be a selfie spot to promote Whakatāne on social media like the Taupō sign on the Taupō lakefront.
"We need to compromise. We've already been severely damaged by Whakaari and Covid-19, which were disastrous for businesses," he said.
"If we get any less customers, within a matter of weeks businesses will fold because reserves are depleted. People earning big bucks in council will be responsible for the loss of hundreds of jobs if they don't get it right, it's that simple."
Presentables owner Leonie Moeke is all for development in the CBD but said it could not happen at the expense of carparking.
She asked how people would expect New World or Bunnings to react if their carparks were earmarked for development.
"What is wrong with having a carpark in the middle of the CBD? It's a real asset and we should market it as such. We should let people know that we have great shopping, great eateries, and central, free, all-day parking."
Like many others, Moeke is concerned about safety and security if people have to walk in the dark to their cars.
"I'm sure there is an opportunity out there for this growth fund to do some real good in the community, however, the Kakahoroa Drive parking area is not it."
Whakatane district councillor John Puller has been chatting with the community at Wharaurangi about Te Ara Hou nearly every day for two weeks and says its clear people are after a family-friendly space.
"We've had a steady stream of people each day and there's been a good range of ideas and views," he said.
"Some are poles apart but there is some middle ground. People have been quite focused on car parking but that's really only part of this project and our intention is not to take any away at this stage and we're open to everyone's views. I'm looking forward to reading everyone's submissions and rolling them out. This is only stage one at this time and then we have another go later on with what we've heard."
Pullar said people had been slightly confused between Te Ara Hou and the Innovating Streets project.
Te Ara Hou is a multi-million dollar Provincial Growth Fund project designed to revitalise the town centre and Innovating Streets is a temporary project funded by Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency designed to enable the community to try ideas and see if it likes them.
The graphics with chess boards, basketball courts and yoga on The Strand relate to Innovating Streets and Pullar said there were no firm plans for Te Ara Hou yet.
"It's exciting times, and people aren't used to having a clear canvas so that's something new. I would encourage them to do a submission – we will read them despite what people say," he said.
Pullar said some main themes were coming through as well as comments about what people would like to see happen elsewhere in the district too.
"It's a bit of a mixed bag, but people are keen on relaxing at the riverfront with their family and having cafes and bars," he said.
"So, it's really about family time. Come into town, have some R&R and some retail therapy, too."
The council's pod at Wharaurangi has been attracting about 30 people each day off the street as well as hosting special interest groups like Eastern Bay Villages, due in today.
"We've been talking about this town vision for years and years and just haven't been able to get it over the line due to funding. Now we can and I think it's an amazing opportunity," Pullar said.
"It's a great challenge but it's enjoyable being here and talking to people each day because you become connected to them. It's about us connecting with the public face-to-face."
Submissions on Te Ara Hou close this Friday but submissions can be made at the pod at Wharaurangi from 11am to 2pm daily or online at the Korero Mai website.
Submissions from the first stage will inform concept designs that will be open for consultation after Christmas.