Project aims to revitalise ailing Oamaru

The Waitaki District Council is keen to revitalise Oamaru’s commercial area. Photo: Allied Press...
The Waitaki District Council is keen to revitalise Oamaru’s commercial area. Photo: Allied Press files
Take a stroll down Thames St and you will not be able to ignore it.

Closed storefronts and property signs are visible across Oamaru’s commercial area. But is the situation as dire as it first appears?

Waitaki District Council is aware of the issue and will soon employ an organised placemaking strategy - the strategic improvement of public spaces - to help revitalise the town.

The project is led by Cyndi Christensen, who previously saw success leading placemaking efforts for Hutt City Council.

While it was easy to feel upset at how the town had died down over the years, she said the important thing to realise was people interacted with urban spaces differently to how they used to.

With extended store hours and online shopping, people no longer needed to visit as frequently and at specific times, meaning fewer hours of bustling foot traffic.

This would not change anytime soon, but did not mean nothing could be done.

Permanent stores would not move into vacant spaces with little foot traffic, but by utilising those spaces with temporary attractions such as pop-up shops, life could slowly be brought back into town.

Installing short-term attractions in vacant storefronts would attract more foot traffic to that area, which would then make it more attractive for permanent tenants.

The Oamaru Farmers’ Market was a great example of this effect, as it brought hundreds of people into the harbour precinct and helped support surrounding businesses.

Businesses would also have to reconsider what they focused on, as traditional retail was having "a really hard time", she said.

The more time people spent in an area, the more money they spent, so focusing on creating experiences and areas people enjoyed spending time in would help the economy of the town in the long term.

In the initiative she ran at Hutt City Council, 45 vacant lots were used for more than 90 temporary installations, about half of which were filled with permanent tenants within five years.

The council had already started to activate some empty spaces, such as the recently commissioned artwork on the former Noel Leeming building and using empty windows around town for an art auction.

There were also community-based efforts, such as the upcoming Toyorama in the former Noel Leeming building, run by the Oamaru Rotary Club.

"Creating a programme will open it up to more types of activities and more people in the community," Ms Christensen said.

Every town was different and there was no blanket solution, but the council was working on a plan and she hoped to begin operations by November.

Inspirationz Gifts owner Jan Nuttall was aware of Oamaru’s poor economic image and the effect it had on sales - "it’s not a good look for the town".

Fewer shops meant fewer people coming in and buying from those that were still in business.

The looming general election and recession had people feeling uneasy about making financial decisions, she said.

All shopkeepers spoken to by the Oamaru Mail acknowledged the impact online sales had on local businesses. It was also a reason given by shareholders of Camerons Clothing when it went into liquidation in March last year.

Martyns Cycles owner Brent Martyn said the number of vacant lots felt like a "sign of the times", as people were being careful with their money.

There are no simple explanations as to why so many lots are vacant, but rising costs and online competition are reasons offered by local business owners.

Jack Sutherland Menswear owner Graeme Sutherland said overall, everything was slowly getting more expensive, from internet and phone bills to leases and insurance.

They were fortunate to have aspects of their business which could not be easily outsourced to online retailers, such as printing and selling school uniforms.

For some business owners it was a better financial move to close down instead of sell, as they could make money by clearing out older stock at a discount instead of it being considered dead stock when selling the business, he said.

Another shopkeeper said she was considering closing her store when she retired, as selling would not be worth it with the amount of tax she would have to pay.

Her rent had just gone up as well, tightening her profits.

Many of the vacant lots are from businesses that have relocated to other premises. Reasons offered by shopkeepers were earthquake-strengthening issues or high rents.

There might appear to be a lot of empty stores, but it was just the normal real estate cycle coming out of Covid-19, LJ Hooker Oamaru principal Stephen Robertson said.

It was not the first time the area had a noticeable number of vacant lots and the situation was much worse in 2008 during the global financial crisis, he said.

There was also plenty of interest in the available spaces.

"If there wasn’t any inquiry coming in we’d be worried."

Seven stores in Thames St and the surrounding side streets have lease signs in windows and a further six are closed with no signage. Five of those vacant lots are for businesses that have relocated.