WANT a sad reality check on how centralisation and population loss has affected small rural towns in New Zealand? Then visit places like Raetihi - empty rows of shops, deserted streets and a rundown look that wouldn't be out of place in an old Hollywood ghost town western.
In Wanganui, are we sleepwalking to the same dismal future? All the signs are there. Take a walk down Victoria Ave - I counted over 50 empty ground-floor retail premises in the central business district.
Soon more empty buildings will join the ranks, the ANZ will vacate the magnificent old building next to Majestic Square to match the empty former Farmers building on the opposite side.
A lot of those old buildings are too large and do not measure up as far as earthquake-proofing regulations go. Developers will not touch them because of the cost, no return on investment and, even if they were redeveloped, there is little or no interest in occupying them - such as the seven new shops fronting the new Farmers building - no tenants, and not likely to be any time soon.
A question must be asked: why would our council planning department allow a big retail building to be developed behind seven empty retail shops fronting our main street with little likelihood of them being leased in the near future?
It is not a good look in an avenue with already too many empty shops. Wouldn't it have been more prudent planning to have the new Farmers store fronting the avenue and a big carpark behind with options for development?
Some may say it is a sign of the times as the once-prominent small, independent retailer slowly succumbs to the multiple onslaughts of chain stores, on-line shopping and people choosing to shop in larger retail cities such as Palmerston North. The sad thing is we seem to be willing to let this slow slide continue without trying to reverse and revitalise this place we all love and call home.
Mayor Annette Main will say great initiatives have been launched, including the establishment of boards such as Business Whanganui, Education Whanganui, Visit Whanganui and their governing body Whanganui and Partners. Some of these boards have been in existence for several years, so where is the progress?
Some small positive steps have been achieved but the facts speak for themselves - not only are there many empty retail premises, but look up and nearly 80 per cent of first floor and above premises are also empty.
We have New Zealand's lowest property prices - great if you are buying, but the truth is not enough people are buying. We have not had enough demand and, with an over-abundance of supply, our property is not only at a very low average sale price but also, in many cases, worth less than originally paid for.
This brings us to the critical point - we have no population growth. In fact, our population is decreasing. We have a population of 42,000 for the whole region, and that figure was once over 50,000. A declining population means not only less demand for housing but less money circulating around our city, school closures and less funding for critical services like our health board and roading.
It also means fewer of us are expected to pay for our white elephant waste treatment plant. Then we have council hell-bent on redeveloping the Sarjeant Gallery. We were told it would not cost the ratepayers a cent but, in fact, several million of our money has already gone to this development.
We need to start with a strong, workable strategic plan. Put on hold the big-expenditure projects and expenditure with no defined goals or strategy, then put most of our efforts into the root cause of our problems - population and business decline.
At our last council election, we listened to candidates who talked about "if elected I'm all for growth and moving this city forward" and so on. Most seem to quietly attend countless meetings, pick up the pay cheque and fade into the background.
An election is coming up next year and these people sitting round that council table need to take another look at the principles that got them elected in the first place.
As the ANZ chief economist said in Wanganui last year when asked, "how do we get Wanganui moving forward?", his answer was: "Get all your best local business brains, entrepreneurs and leaders together for a one or two-day workshop, pick their brains and develop a strategy centred on stopping the decline and getting growth back."
-Dave Hill is a Wanganui business owner and was formerly general manager of radio stations in Wanganui, New Zealand and Australia; general manager of newspapers in Horowhenua, Kapiti and Palmerston North; and a former chairman of Destination Whanganui Providers and former board member of Visit Whanganui.