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The town boasts it is "New Zealand's capital of Victorian architecture".
But in the 1980s, a small group feared the town's historic buildings, particularly in the Harbour and Tyne streets area, were deteriorating to such an extent they would become beyond saving.
They looked at the success of The Rocks, in Sydney, also in a foreshore area, and asked why that could not be recreated in Oamaru.
The Harbour-Tyne St Historic Precinct, mostly built between 1865 and 1885, is New Zealand's most complete streetscape of Victorian commercial buildings. But the rest of the town centre contains equally impressive buildings.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the buildings were used mainly for storing wool and grain. Gillies Foundry and engineering used some, along with a coal yard and a joinery company.
Over the years, as businesses moved, commercial activity in Harbour and Tyne streets died, leaving behind one of the most complete, and virtually intact, 19th century commercial districts in New Zealand.
In 1987, a group called the Harbour/Tyne Street Standing Committee was set up to look at how the buildings and area could be preserved, then redeveloped.
A comprehensive report in 1988 recommended the Oamaru Whitestone Civic Trust be established to develop a "Victorian town at work".
It had immediate success and in 1989 bought, through Fletcher Challenge, eight buildings used by then Wrightsons for $80,000, with a grant from the Alexander McMillan Trust.
The trust now owns 17 buildings, 15 in what is now known as the historic precinct and two outside it - Meldrum's Bakery, in Usk St, and the wooden Oamaru Railway Station in Harbour St.
Those buildings now have a rateable value of $2.5 million.
Restoration, structural strengthening and the installation of fire protection systems has resulted in the buildings being tenanted with a broad range of attractions, keeping to the Victorian town at work theme.
Major events have grown up around the area.
When the trust was formed and the Victorian town at work theme proposed, there was healthy scepticism in the town. However, attitudes have changed dramatically, engendering a pride in the community in protecting the historic appearance of the town, not just the Harbour-Tyne streets area.
That attitude extends beyond the historic area into lower Thames St and further north.
The former Oamaru Borough Council, now the Waitaki District Council, owns and uses some of those buildings, including the i-Site (former Bank of New Zealand) in lower Thames St and the Forrester Gallery (former Bank of New South Wales).
In 1989, when the district council was formed from the amalgamation of the Oamaru Borough, Waihemo and Waitaki County councils, it looked at options for a new headquarters, including a new building.
Instead, partly due to community pressure, it bought the former chief post office and redeveloped that, at a cost more than that of a new building.
In 2009, the council spent $10.3 million restoring and redeveloping the Opera House.
It has also made available to the trust loan facilities of up to $500,000 to draw on to restore and redevelop trust buildings.
Some of the buildings in the historic area are privately owned - the prominent Wool Store is one, the Customs House occupied by the North Otago Art Society is another.
Private owners have also redeveloped historic buildings, not just in the historic area but also in other parts of Oamaru, and most have tried when redecorating to fit in with heritage guidelines adopted by the council.
Waitaki District Council's district plan has provisions to protect the Victorian image, and lists specific buildings of value.
But it is the Oamaru central area design guidelines that are "to assist owners and developers of buildings" in central Oamaru to renovate, alter or redevelop premises.
The 68-page set of guidelines promotes ideas and concepts for those involved in renovating buildings, designing new buildings and maintaining and upgrading public space.
Elsewhere in the province, the Central Otago District Council has heritage buildings and items listed in its district plan, along with protection for precincts at Cromwell old town, Clyde, Naseby, St Bathans and Ophir.
In its district plan, the Queenstown Lakes District Council has three categories for controlling the alteration and demolition of listed buildings, structures and precincts, depending on their significance to the district. Heritage landscapes are also identified for protection.
The Clutha District Council also has protection under its plan, with a register of heritage items, including the Hoffman Kiln at Benhar.
It also recognises the special character of places such as Lawrence, Gabriel's Gully and Benhar, and encourages the retention, preservation and reuse of the district's built heritage.