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Editorial: We mustn't give up on downtown


Editorial: We mustn't give up on downtown

Today's Inside story is on an important issue, and it's likely to provoke some strong reactions.

We have delved into the thorny issue of Tauranga's downtown, trying to answer the question of whether it is dying, or whether it is a vibrant area with plenty of potential, and what else is needed to improve it.

We decided to tackle the issue after a news story on Queen's Birthday weekend trading, and from anecdotal feedback we keep hearing from retailers and shoppers.

Mount retailers and Bayfair reported they had been busy; downtown Tauranga retailers said it was slower than normal.

So, what is the truth? The truth, it seems, is a matter of opinion.

Some retailers we spoke to say the area is dying and point out the empty shops. The figures are surely concerning for city leaders - nearly 17.5 per cent of downtown space is vacant.

These retailers point to paid parking being an issue, lack of foot traffic, high rents, the fact the area has old, earthquake-prone buildings and an overall depressed feeling.

The opening line, from a downtown florist who says if she died it would be days before her body was discovered, is certainly strong. Some businesses have moved to the Mount, which they say has more room, a better atmosphere and lower rents.

Not everyone sees it like this.

Some downtown businesses say they are busy, believe strongly in the area, and are in it for the long haul. They see it as an area with a distinct boutique feel; a different experience to the malls and suburban outlets.

They see opportunity and a bright future. It's just a matter of finding a niche and encouraging more people, especially tourists, into the area. They believe the downtown will come alive again.

Mainstreet Tauranga, the organisation that collects compulsory fees, comes in for criticism.

One business owner says she has no idea what the organisation does.

Mainstreet says a new member's pack is presented to businesses outlining what is on offer. It also holds think tanks and advocates on behalf of members.

Priority One is working on initiatives to bring in bigger businesses.

Max Mason, Chamber of Commerce chief, agrees the downtown has taken a hit from the global financial crisis and Psa, but says there are many reasons to be optimistic, including growing consumer confidence, the city's new hotel, on-going waterfront developments, tertiary campus and potential for tourism.

City business leader Anne Pankhurst dismisses any notion of a crisis.

But I believe there is a problem with the downtown.

Parking is a major, complex issue. If I was a downtown business owner I, too, would be upset that my customers are penalised for parking in town to come to my store during the week while a competitor on the suburbs offers free parking.

I realise parking brings in revenue but how long can the council continue to fight this? How many downtown businesses and consumers want free parking? Councillor Tony Christiansen, in a guest editorial today, points out the council doesn't help by having wardens issuing warrant of fitness and registration fines in the central city.

The flip side on parking is: what would be the financial impact of free parking on the city?

More special events and festivals, especially on Saturdays, are needed to draw people in.

Tauranga needs to pump money into doing up the downtown area, giving it a proper facelift and working with businesses to provide it with a greater heart. The question is: are ratepayers prepared to spend this money?

We must not give up on our downtown.

Let's celebrate it. Let's put more money into sprucing up the waterfront. Let's make it a destination we can be proud of.

But businesses have to do their part. Those who choose to operate there have to meet consumer needs and offer impeccable service. They need to ensure their doors are open. They have to find their niche. They need to ensure they are marketing themselves properly. Collectively, they have to offer an x-factor that draws in the crowds and keeps them coming back.

Consumers also need to support these businesses. It is important for our central city and our local economy.

If they don't, then everything else is a waste of time.