The Backhouse, touted as a centre for collaboration and the creative industries in Whanganui, has lost two of its foundation tenants - but there are hopes the concept can still be a success.
The vision for the underutilised Backhouse building on Drews Ave was a collaboration between UCOL and economic development agency Whanganui & Partners to realise "a shared aspiration to create business-friendly spaces that bring together entrepreneurship and education".
The concept was inspired by similar successful operations such as The Icehouse in Auckland, Kreative in Wellington, and The Factory in Palmerston North.
Now, less than a year after moving in, Melita Farley and Kevin Double, who operate co-working space and a boutique cinema, Confluence, have left the building and Confluence has closed.
The Whanganui Chamber of Commerce has also moved on.
Farley and Double moved Confluence to the Backhouse from its Watt St premises a year ago establishing a 14-desk co-working space on the ground floor and the cinema upstairs.
Moving to a more central location with opportunities to collaborate with other agencies in the same building seemed like the logical next step.
The Backhouse Trust was formed in June 2021 with just two trustees - Gaelle Deighton, representing Whanganui & Partners, and Mark Cleaver, for UCOL. The aim was to recruit more trustees with a diversity of skills and experience to help drive the project.
Farley said the move to Covid-19 level 4 in August last year didn't help, however, having a month-by-month lease made planning very difficult for the business.
"We agreed to go into the building on those terms with the understanding that it was a short-term arrangement and we were willing to be flexible but a lack of clear communication from the Backhouse building project managers meant that we were left with very little choice," Farley said.
"Running a collaborative space and a cinema as a social enterprise requires a lot of forward planning; both to ensure that we're meeting the needs of the community, but also to ensure long-term sustainability. We weren't sure when we would have a lease that lasted longer than a month which made planning difficult."
Although the situation had become untenable for them, Farley said she still believed the Backhouse project was a worthwhile venture that should be successful.
"We really hope it does succeed because we loved the intentions and with the right levels of communication and support in place, there's no reason why it shouldn't succeed."
Whanganui & Partners chief executive Hannah Middleton said while the Backhouse Trust was still waiting on a gross lease from UCOL in March this year, Confluence was presented with two longer-term lease proposals and the offer of an extension for another month under the lease to occupy agreement with UCOL which they declined.
"The initial structure allowed for two trustees to undertake the work required to get the trust operational," Middleton said.
"There are now representatives from Nga Wairiki Ngati Apa, Tupoho, and Nga Rauru contributing to the trust. The trustees will be tasked with overseeing further development of The Backhouse, and there is potential for new trustees to join in the future with up to eight trustees in total."
Whanganui & Partners is also in the process of recruiting an operational manager to oversee the Backhouse.
"Whanganui & Partners was sorry to hear about Confluence closing and we are aware of the significant contribution Kevin Double and Melita Farley make to the creative community," Middleton, who was on maternity leave during most of Confluence's time in the Backhouse building, said.
Whanganui writer Rachel Rose said she enjoyed using Confluence's co-working space at their Watt St premises and was "gutted" the business was now closed.
"I was disappointed when the move to the Backhouse building was announced but Melita and Kevin were excited about the opportunities to collaborate with other organisations and do more with the cinema so I was happy for them," she said.
"These two have offered so much to Whanganui and their commitment is amazing. They carried the business right through the Covid lockdowns when the cinema was closed and the co-working side of things was very quiet. Confluence was something unique."
The Whanganui Chamber of Commerce was also resident in the Backhouse building and has now moved to premises in Heads Rd. Chamber of Commerce chief executive Helen Garner said the new location is a better fit for the organisation.
"The move to Heads Rd has been a good one for us. We are an independent membership organisation, and it is important for us to be in amongst business and connected to the community we serve," she said.
"Our exit from The Backhouse coincided with that of Confluence and it had clearly become untenable for them as it became apparent that the promises of an environment conducive to supporting co-working and collaborative spaces, would not eventuate any time soon."
Whanganui financial adviser Niki Vernon recently moved her charitable business Money Poppins into the Backhouse building. She provides free business advice for sole traders and micro-businesses in Whanganui and Rangitīkei.
"I am optimistic that with a fully established trust and manager in place the Backhouse will be a success," she said.
"I think it is essential that everyone in the building has clear guidelines and parameters and trustees who understand everyone's needs. I think it is very disappointing that Melita and Kevin found things unworkable because they have given so much to Whanganui."
Whanganui Māori Business Network Te Manu Atatū, 100% SWEET providing school leavers with education, employment, and training, and the Port Employment Precinct are working in the Backhouse building and Middleton said the trust is working with a number of organisations interested in moving in.
Double and Farley plan to keep working collaboratively in Whanganui and would like to eventually reopen their boutique cinema in a new location.
Partners in work and life, the couple established their Whanganui business Double Farley Creative Partners in 2015.
The following year they scooped the Whanganui Chamber of Commerce Regional Business Awards taking home three awards including the coveted supreme award.
Alongside their in-house activities, they provided adult learning and collaborative events and produced documentary films that have won Doc Edge festival awards.