Big brands, small towns
Big-brand retail in Wellington is generating bad news for Ōtaki and good news for Tawa. But there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Ōtaki is mostly known (by the rest of the region) as an outlet shopping destination, or the place you stop for 20 minutes on your roadtrip to stretch your legs, have a wee, and get a fruit icecream.
Stuff reports that outlet retailers and some others are leaving, and State Highway 1 will bypass the town centre, meaning Ōtaki must reinvent itself in a hurry.
Aotearoa – and Wellington – has lots of small towns that sprang up around the main road (or main railway). The rise of cars has meant that the road – once, nothing but good for the town – has become a double-edged sword: traffic and cars undermine liveability and walkability, and while bringing out-of-towners in, greater mobility means small towns can easily be shunned for other places. When the big road leaves town, most of those short-stay, transient visitors will not come, and if they are your only source of income, it’s not looking good. Being a destination is essential to avoid decline “becoming another Patea” (as a commenter below the article put it).
Poor Ōtaki has had a double bind: its previous destination status was outlet shops. Outlet shops are an interesting thing. With online shopping and globalisation, they’re inherently a fickle phenomenon. Some are being done in clusters, some starting to overlap with malls in the experience they provide. Tawa is getting its outlet cluster upsized – the Outlet City has been sold to the owners of the Porirua Megacentre.
Ōtaki’s outlet shops were at least part of its high street: they were in the open, with the street trees, and intermingled with a variety of small local businesses who could attract outlet shoppers’ eye.
Outlet City in Tawa is another thing: it’s separate from the town centre, two minutes’ walk from the train station (yet boasting an enormous carpark), and by definition it’s not locally-owned businesses (with the possible exception of a BBs (chain) cafe and a pan-Asian takeaway). Its new owners own the Porirua Megacentre, 15 minutes’ drive and 10 train to the North, and a textbook example of how to ruin a CBD for people.
Unlike Ōtaki, Tawa doesn’t rely on the outlets for local income and jobs; it’s one of several smaller towns within spitting distance in Wellington, with residents working in the big city and spending both locally (Porirua, Tawa, Johnsonville) and “in town”. Locals can get jobs in Outlet City for all that the income goes elsewhere. But if Tawa – like Ōtaki – wants to foster a town that’s attractive for all, feeding off and nourishing a great community, Ōtaki’s news might be better than Tawa’s.
Yes, Ōtaki’s losing big-brand outlet shops and a flow of short-stay custom. But it’s been quietly enjoying a cultural and educational renaissance, and is on track to be Aotearoa’s first bilingual town.