26 Mar 2024

Nelson urgently needs revitalisation as economic performance slumps - mayor

7:50 pm on 26 March 2024
Nelson city

Nelson house prices have fallen by 8 percent year on year, while retail sales values fell by 5.7 percent year on year. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Nelson's mayor says the city is in urgent need of revitalisation, with data showing its economic performance was the worst of any region in New Zealand in the last year.

At a City Revitalisation Summit held on Tuesday, Mayor Nick Smith said the last four years were the toughest he could remember in more than three decades, starting with the Covid-19 pandemic, the August 2022 flood event and then the economic storm of high interest rates and increasing inflation.

A recent ASB economic report for 2023 showed house prices in Nelson fell by 3.7 percent in 2023, with house sales falling by 8 percent, year on year. Retail sales values also fell by 5.7 percent year on year, putting the region at the bottom of the list of 16 regions for economic growth.

"It wasn't just a blip, last spring we were second to bottom, in winter we were again bottom, the reality is not only is New Zealand in recession, but our community here in Nelson is at the bottom of it," Smith said.

Nelson City Council staff, elected members and business leaders met for a City Revitalisation Summit on Tuesday, to ensure the city could grow now and into the future.

Smith said one of the council's main priorities in its 10-year plan was to "transform the central city to be a thriving, accessible and people-focused centre".

"At its core, is an ambition for Nelson to be the commercial and cultural heart of Te Tauihu."

In contrast, the neighbouring Tasman District was ranked 11 out of 16 regions, up five places on the recent ASB regional scoreboard and Smith said there had been a drift in retail and investment across to Tasman in the last two decades.

Since 2000, Nelson's population had grown by 30 percent, while Tasman's had grown by 43 percent. In the same time, retail spend had grown by 13 percent in Nelson and 71 percent in Tasman.

"The reality is that more Nelson people are choosing to shop in Nelson, and fewer people are coming from Tasman into our city - on this track the retail spend in Tasman will exceed Nelson's by 2030," Smith said.

"I do not wish Nelson to become the port for the city of Richmond, I acknowledge Tim King would make a great mayor - he would need to give up his tractor - but I would make a terrible harbourmaster."

A City Revitalisation Summit was held at the Trafalgar Centre in Nelson on Tuesday.

A City Revitalisation Summit was held at the Trafalgar Centre in Nelson on Tuesday. Photo: Supplied / Nelson City Council

Much of the conversation about the city's revitalisation has been community-led. The What if Whakatū Nelson initiative last year aimed to collect ideas and start conversations on how to help make the city more vibrant and liveable.

Architect William Samuels said it received hundreds of suggestions about how to revitalise the city - they included pedestrianising Trafalgar Street or moving the Saturday market, to developing the marina with restaurants and bars or establishing a summer pavilion events centre, and developing car-parking buildings to free up space in the city.

"In Nelson, we are really good at coming up with ideas, but it is actually taking that next step and enacting them... I'm personally a bit tired of having the same conversations about things we should do, and never actually have anything happen."

Working groups have been put together to go through the suggestions and assess their viability, identify key stakeholders and develop a strategy to deliver them.

Samuels said it was not realistic to rely solely on the council for funding, it needed to also come from the community and other sources.

First Retail Group managing director Chris Wilkinson said Nelson like other older cities - faced the challenge of increasing visitation by creating environments people wanted to be in - that meant having suitable buildings, addressing seismic issues, increasing competition and improving a dated public realm.

He said recent news that Tasman-based fruit and vegetable market Connings was opening a store in the city centre was great.

"We often hear, why can't we get a Farro or a Moore Wilson's? Well Connings goes to the next level because they actually produce the stuff, no-one has that edge in New Zealand... so when it lands we need to be supporting it, boots and all."

Property developer Steve Baigent first began his investment portfolio when he bought a property in central Nelson 40 years ago and had since grown a national portfolio of shopping centres, including the Richmond Mall.

He remained passionate about the town at the top of the South Island, which he said was "in desperate need of major investment in retail and office buildings".

Much of the current commercial building stock in Nelson was tired and run down, he said. Some tenants had vacated buildings that were non-compliant due to seismic issues - but there were not many other options out there for them.

"The city needs a makeover, there is no doubt about that and the solution needs imagination."

The council's attitude to parking in recent years had been "very cavalier" and a disincentive to investors, Baigent said.

"Investors need tenants, tenants need customers, customers need parking and council has been far too aggressive in reducing car parking.

"I fear that Nelson has not deteriorated enough for investors to sit up and take notice that they need to take action and we may need to see the city deteriorate even further before real action will happen."

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