Jonathan Barrett calls it the beating heart of the city.

And despite questions being asked in recent times about its health, the Whanganui District Council's principal planner says Victoria Ave still has a pulse.

But it will have to change and adapt.

Journalist Duncan Garner was in town last year on a tour of heartland New Zealand. He travelled the length of the country but it was a 45 second video which riled the people of Whanganui. Standing near the intersection of Ingestre St and and Victoria Ave he said he'd walked the two-plus kilometre length of the Ave and found 35 shops for lease. He observed and relayed what he saw to the nation.


"Its quite phenomenal," he said. "Some big department stores as well. Massive buildings. I know people are positive and parochial about their town and so they should be. But what does this say about main street on Whanganui."

Just like it did earlier that year when Whanganui got caught up in the net of economist Shamubeel Eaqub's "zombie town" theory, the town got it's collective back up.

"It drew out the parochial, it drew out the pride," Whanganui mayor Annette Main says.

"We're very good at having ideas and then if nobody picks it up and runs with it it just fades away.

This time maybe, it won't.

"I guess it's falling to the council now because we've picked it up again with the regeneration project for the central city and that's what being undertaken at the moment."

She says empty shops along the Ave is not a reflection of economic decline but a change in retail.

"That face-to-face retailing where somebody walks in your door is not necessarily the way that the world is going and we have to work out a way to take advantage of that while retaining a vibrant central city."


"If we look around the world at what other cities have done, they've done it by putting libraries, community facilities, maybe getting some of the other businesses to move closer to town like the dentists and the doctors and those sort of people, the service kind of industries moving more into the centre of town so that it's still vibrant," she says.

Mr Barrett is of the same school of thought and he will at least play some role in directing that change in the short term at least. He has been working on a 10-year plan for the CBD as a whole and the avenue is a big part of that.

Looking Good: The aesthetics of Victoria Ave's building is seen as something to promote. PHOTO/ BEVAN CONLEY
Looking Good: The aesthetics of Victoria Ave's building is seen as something to promote. PHOTO/ BEVAN CONLEY

And while he's positive for the future he's happy to accept what problems there are. The issues facing main street are tied into issues as a wider community, he says.

"A gently declining population and then an aging population. We've got a town with pretty low capital values, low rental values and a lot of vacant space."

He says "first floor" vacancy is up at about 80 per cent.

"If you pile on top of that the number of earthquake-prone building we have we've got a lot of work to do.

"But, on the other hand, we've got some big pluses. We've got one of the best preserved town centres in New Zealand. That's viewed as a real economic asset. People come to Whanganui because they like the way it looks."

Mr Barrett said Victoria Ave would continue to be "the beating economic heart of Whanganui", just in a different way.

"Patterns of retailing have changed and the demand for ever larger premises to retail an ever larger range of goods has meant main street locations no longer fit the bill," he says.

"We've gone through that evolution with Trafalgar Square and with Mitre 10 and the main street has bounced back from that. (But) it's not fully recovered and it's changed."

Mr Barrett said that kind of shopping was what was in demand and it was not worth trying to halt it. Much better to find other uses for the main street, he says.

"It's no longer the centre of retailing but town centres have evolved into other things where you go for entertainment, you go for education, you go to eat and drink, you go for cultural experiences. And in a sense that evolution is healthy." There are natural groupings which seem to be forming in the different blocks of Victoria Ave. Guyton Street to Ingestre Street are becoming a fast food block while larger developments were settling in between Ingestre St and Dublin Street.

"We're starting to see that evolution now," Mr Barrett says. "The bottom block is sort of christened as the slow floor quarter.

"The main retailing activity is focused on the middle two blocks. It's not too bad but it could be a lot better.

"But a lot of those niche retailers where you have to have hands on experience in the thing that you want to buy will always need a place.

How we use our CBD may need to change with a reduction in retail and increase in community activities, leisure and services. Photo/Bevan Conley
How we use our CBD may need to change with a reduction in retail and increase in community activities, leisure and services. Photo/Bevan Conley

"There will always be space for that on the high street. But it will now be with food, entertainment, and galleries."

Thistle Sweet Shop is perhaps an example of that and owner Sharlene Millar said the block was generally a good one for retail. "There's a good flow of foot traffic. This is probably the block that gets the most."

She said having events along the Avenue would be a good way to keep the main street populated.

And Whanganui people have to show some self help.

La Strada head chef Nina Damosso said the best thing people could do was support Whanganui businesses with patronage.

While others are planning long term for the Ave, Doreen Hardy and her Collective Whanganui are trying to get people into empty shops immediately.

Modelled on similar overseas projects, Collective Whanganui broker deals between owners of empty commercial premises in the CBD and people wanting to test out a main street space at peppercorn rental. It allows people with new businesses or projects who want to see if a CBD premises would work for them to give it a try.

"If you fill all the shops, their friends will come and their families will come. Other people will see the activity and the will come and eventually our national chains start to see Whanganui as quite a lovely place," Mrs Hardy says.

"I'm so sure that this is the right thing for Whanganui."

"We used to shop to shop but now it's a social event. I think it brings our community together. I think a vibrant CBD is good for the community and it's good for the economy."


Mrs Hardy says there is a feeling that change is real this time and people are taking seriously the challenges laid down.

"What we all do is we all rage for a very short time then we're all like okay. I think this time the outrage was enough."

Meanwhile longer term, bringing the library into town is one idea both Mr Barrett and Ms Main believe has potential and a catalyst for Victoria Ave becoming a more social and civic centre.

"It would be a leading project to demonstrate exactly what could be achieved in that area," Mr Barrett says. "I think there's a lot more to be done in terms of physical improvements."

Physical improvements include extending pedestrian areas, especially for hospitality but there seems no appetite yet for ridding part of Victoria Avenue of cars.

Mr Barrett says: "You will clearly always want to have traffic and the ability to move through but clearly the way that traffic moves through can be redesigned to have a lesser impact and to create more opportunities for sitting out, more social activities on the street."

More events seem to be popular idea and one businesses, council and residents want more of. The Vintage Festival has proven itself as a pull to get people into the city.

"I do believe events are key," Ms Main says. "It doesn't matter if they're not right in the middle of town but they'll spill over."

And there are always questions asked about shop hours on weekends but Ms Main says it's not fair to expect sole operators to open every day of the week.

"Part of me thinks we should focus on Saturdays and do a full day on Saturday then maybe leave Sundays alone for the cafes and maybe bring entertainment in on Saturdays but that's never going to meet with the approval of everybody because people like to go shopping," she says.

"Does it matter that a town is not open on a Sunday? I'm not sure. As long as we fill it with other things and we could fill it with other things."

Whatever happens will cost money. "But I think the argument goes that we cannot afford not to do it," Mr Barrett says.