‘Heart of Oamaru’ suffering

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A rise in storefront vacancies on Oamaru’s main street is also causing landlords to rethink how they fill their spaces in the new climate.

And it’s pretty urgent, says the Lee family, who owns the building at 93 Thames St – home to Nancy’s Lingerie and what was Mainstreet MusicWorks.

The problems prone to provincial town retail are happening all over New Zealand, not just in Oamaru.

But the Lee family wants to be part of the solution in Oamaru, concerned about the growing number of empty shops on the town’s main street.

“There’s lots of things happening in Oamaru. However, the heart of Oamaru, the retail shopping centre of Oamaru is suffering,” Elizabeth Duck (nee Lee) said.

“Something’s got to be put in place to safeguard the fact that the whole retail business is changing, plus the dynamics of the owners there are changing.

“Some steps need to be taken now and .. it has to be driven from the top.”

Shum Oi Lee and the late Allan Lee, bought the Thames St building 42 years ago.

“They wanted a simple commercial property to purchase, and a fail-safe investment for their children,” son Andrew Lee said.

The Lee family ran a Chinese market gardens, at Gees Rd, Kakanui, for many years.

Their six children – Kevin, Trevor, Andrew, Shirley, Neville and Elizabeth – were all born in Oamaru and attended Waitaki Boys’ and Girls’ high schools.

Family commitment . . . Owners of the building at 93 Thames St (back, from left) Kevin Lee, Trevor Lee and Andrew Lee, (front) Shum Oi Lee and Shirley Lee. Absent: Neville Lee and Elizabeth Duck, who live in Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

In 2003, the family sold its Kakanui land.

The family is now spread out across New Zealand and Australia, but they all continue to be involved in looking after the Thames St property.

“Mum is happy to keep it in the family and remain a main street property owner in Oamaru,” Mrs Duck said.

The family had already spoken to potential tenants for the building after Mainstreet MusicWorks closed its doors last month.

But the situation in Oamaru needed a strategic and co-ordinated approach to ensure future tenants, of all main street buildings, could succeed.

“We’ve had such brilliant tenants .. [and] we want to pick the right tenant in there,” Mrs Duck said.

“We don’t want more tenants disappearing from the main street buildings.”

Mrs Duck said the Waitaki District Council needed to treat Oamaru’s main street as “an open shopping centre”.

“Basically, it’s the Thames St shopping centre, that’s how I see it, and to do that you’ve got to have someone to manage it,” she said.

The Lee family wants to be part of the conversation – and they were interested to hear how other landlords were supporting their tenants in Oamaru.

“I’m not saying they should give out dirt cheap rent, because they can’t afford it either, and I’m not saying the council should give out rate concessions – but I just think everyone needs to, the town needs to rally together.

“Like they used to in Oamaru – everyone has to rally together . and it has to be kick-started by the council.”

Waitaki District Council economic development manager Gerard Quinn said he had another meeting scheduled with Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive Dougal McGowan yesterday to discuss practical steps forward.

The council and the Chamber of Commerce were looking at working with business owners, aspiring business owners and landlords, to find models that worked in Oamaru, that suited the town’s size, location and needs, Mr Quinn said.

“What I’m trying to do is rally the interested parties, rather than have a number of groups try to do something different . . . and have a more co-ordinated approach to this issue,” he said.

“I’m also open to the conversation with landlords because they are a key player. They are a provider, they are a business in their own right and things are changing for landlords, as much as they are changing for the resident businesses.”