Business owners in the small Tararua town of Woodville are facing the prospect of closing their doors because of the fall in traffic caused by the closure of the Manawatu Gorge Road.
A large slip closed what was the main thoroughfare between the Manawatu region and Hawke’s Bay in April, and the New Zealand Transport Agency announced last week the road will be closed indefinitely, due to dangerous unstable land above the slip.
But as the main alternative route - Saddle Road - is put under severe pressure, and its conditions are deteriorating rapidly, locals are questioning why it wasn’t upgraded sooner.
Locals say they weren’t surprised by the news that the Gorge Road will be closed indefinitely, but for business owners, the reality of what that means has just begun to hit.
Teresa De Vries owns the New Central Motor Inn on Woodville’s main street, where their visitor numbers have fallen rapidly.
“We would have the truck drivers Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and we could be booked up. Thursday and Friday we’d start getting the tourists in for the weekend, but for the last three weeks we’ve had seven people in.”
As a result, they’ve decided to close their restaurant.
“We’re using our own money to prop up our business and with the gorge now confirmed closed, that’s something we’re going to have to look at personally to see if we carry the business on,” she says.
A few kilometres down the road towards the slip is Bridge Cafe. Owner Rebecca Algie says apart from locals, no one knows they’re accessible.
“Business is down 73 percent,” she says. “People that don’t know the area do not come in here for a number of reasons, obviously because the road is closed.
“Google Maps shows it’s shut all the way up there [up to Balance Gorge Road, where the cafe is located].”
She’s had to lay off 10 casual staff members, which is common in winter, but with no time frame of when the road may open, she says some hard decisions will need to be made.
“The business isn’t viable while the gorge is shut, unfortunately. I only found out on Friday, so I don’t have a plan of action just yet,” she says.
The two alternative routes to Palmerston North are Saddle Road and the Pahiatua Track, both of which bypass the town. It’s that flow of traffic the main street is missing.
Artist Nick White has a studio tucked off the main street. In the summer 40 people would walk through his door, but with the road closed, that number’s dropped to less than 10.
He says slips have closed the gorge road numerous times in the past, and he’s critical that Saddle Road hasn’t been upgraded sooner.
“NZTA has dropped the ball,” he says. “When the gorge closed for 10 months in 2011 we used Saddle Road, which was just torn up really bad. When they reopened they [NZTA] said, ‘We’re going to do up Saddle Road.’ They haven’t done it up yet.”
NZTA says it will fast-track an $8.5 million upgrade, now that the gorge is closed indefinitely. However, locals complain the road is dangerous, and is falling away in some places.
Denise Robertson lives in Palmerston North and drives the Saddle Road every day to her job in Danniverke. She brought her parents to Woodville today to showher parents how bad the road is.
“I drive it at night and early in the morning and it’s just horrible. The road’s a mess, there’s lots of trucks on the road, it’s just awful,” she says.
Truck driver Sarah Diprose drives Saddle Road daily and echoes that the road is less than ideal.
She says there needs to be more understanding from drivers.
“It is quite dangerous where it’s breaking up in places and general people in vehicles don’t realise the logistics of what we’re carting. It’s the weight and we get quite slow from the Woodville side and Palmerston North because it’s quite a big hill,” Ms Diprose says.
Woodville locals are remaining positive, and are hoping the government will explore solutions to help them keep their doors open.
Evan Natrass owns the Viking Haul and says business is slowing, and he’s thought of a way the government could help.
“A tax relief in the form of perhaps letting local businesses off provisional tax, that’s not asking for a tax cut, it means we’d still be paying tax at the end of the year, but instead of paying money in advance on provisional tax when there is no money coming in, we’d wait till the end of the year and pay what’s owed rather than paying what we don’t have now.”
Artist Nick White says the town will manage, but they really need the traffic to keep coming through.
Because it’s those passers-through that are the lifeline for this small community.