Optimism trumping gloom in one small North Otago service town

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On the up . . . Flying Pig Cafe owner Alison Todd believes Duntroon's future is positive, despite the closure of the Duntroon Hotel. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Duntroon, between Kurow and Oamaru, has faced its fair share of issues over the years, as have many other small service towns around the country. With the recent closure of the Duntroon Hotel and the local squash club fighting for survival, Oamaru Mail reporter Daniel Birchfield speaks to some locals and others with a vested interest in the town about what the future holds.

If you had asked Duntroon residents several years ago to sum up the state of the North Otago town in one word, many probably would have used the terms “dire” or “desperate”.

These days, those words have been replaced with others such as “growing” and “positive”.

Duntroon and District Development Association chairman Mike Gray, a passionate advocate for the town, prefers to use another term.

“The mood is hopeful,” he says.

“If you’d asked me 14 years ago, I’d have said the mood was despairing.”

At the time, the town’s population was in a state of decline, Duntroon School was threatened with closure and the future looked bleak.

Today, Duntroon boasts the Vanished World attraction, a working blacksmith forge in the form of Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop, the Flying Pig Cafe, the popular Maori rock art drawings north of the township, and a school with about 70 pupils.

However, the recent closure of the Duntroon Hotel is described by most as a blow for the town.

In December, the Otago Daily Times reported a “difficult” council and differences in the understanding of the building code forced the family running the establishment out of their business and home just days before Christmas.

Malcolm Moore, who represents tavern owner Dunmor Property Ltd, engaged a lawyer to examine a threat of prosecution from Waitaki District Council if people were still living in the top floor of the two-storey property on December 19.

Publican Sandy Annan lived there with her partner and three children, but due to the battle between Mr Moore and the council, she and partner BJ decided to close their business on December 16.

“It is a concern,” Mr Gray said.

“It’s a concern because when people come to town, you do need accommodation. I think, long term, different owners were hoping to provide accommodation within the hotel . . . so that was a potential thing that has gone.

“The pub also tended to offer evening meals, which no-one else does in town, and it also offered people a place for a drink or two.”

He said with the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail – which runs through Duntroon – becoming more and more popular, there was a desperate need for a pub which also offered accommodation.

“I don’t know what the answer is. It’s always a very difficult ask, because . . . things are so seasonal. People from outside criticise Duntroon – we should have this and we should have that.”

FLYING Pig Cafe owner Alison Todd, who has lived in Duntroon for 10 years, agrees with Mr Gray.

“We probably need a pub because there’s no evening meals. We can’t do that as well as work all day. I don’t know how that’ll happen,” she said.

“There is not as much of a village any more as there used to be.”

While there was some “fantastic” accommodation in Duntroon, such as Kowhai Cottage, the old railway station, and the local camping ground, more was needed, she said.

Mr Gray believed one solution would be to establish a holiday park in the town.

“We have a camping ground, but it’s not an ideal location because it’s on a flood plain,” he said.

“We would love somebody to invest in something on a higher plain, and build a holiday park.”

He said that would require the usual infrastructure services, as well as septic tanks.

“It would take capital investment . . . once it’s been completed it could have, say, 10 self-contained units and a service block with a kitchen and lounge.”

The Flying Pig, open between Labour Weekend and Anzac Day, is proof a business can succeed in Duntroon.

Mrs Todd said tourism, for example, the Alps 2 Ocean trail and parties from Adventure South, brought in plenty of customers.

The cafe also had a strong local customer base.

“We get a good base from Oamaru. It’s a good distance to come out from . . . we have a lot who come out. We have a lot of internationals though and obviously lots of cyclists.”

DUNTROON Garage owner Andy Pickles said his business was also in good shape.

“There’s a lot of traffic flowing and there’s a lot of activity with the bikes. Our business is constantly steady.”

He also believed the closure of the pub was an issue for Duntroon.

“It’s not a good thing for the town, but it is what it is, really. You’ve got to make the best of it.”

Mr Pickles is also involved with the Duntroon Squash Club, which is close to folding due to a drop in the number of people playing.

He put that down to a shift in lifestyle, as people – particularly those who work in the dairy industry – were finding less time to play.

The pennant structure no longer worked, so other ways of getting games on the local courts had to be found.

Mr Pickles said technology could be the answer.

“We’re going to modify the way people play and contact each other to play. Hopefully, a lot of people will contact each other directly using new technology, like Facebook.

“I’m confident we will make a good go of it. We’ve had too much fun over the years to let it drop.”

Forging ahead . . . Nicol's Blacksmith Shop is a Duntroon success story. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD
Forging ahead . . . Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop is a Duntroon success story. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD

Another local success story is Nicol’s Blacksmith Shop, which is open for self-guided tours throughout the week, while a working blacksmith is on site on Sundays.

Mr Gray said he was proud of what the Duntroon and District Development Association had achieved to get the shop up and running again.

“I’m just delighted with what has happened in the blacksmith shop. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d have said we were raising money for static displays for a museum. Now, we’re open on Sundays . . . that’s thanks to the volunteers.”

As far as the future of Duntroon was concerned, he was confident the town would go from strength to strength – as long as people invested in it, both financially and socially.

Mrs Todd said she was “very positive” about the future and was committed to the area.

“We’ve been here for 10 years, so it’s been a nice place to live. We really enjoy it here.”

Mr Pickles was also confident Duntroon was going forward.

“It’s pretty positive. There’s a lot of interest in the fossil centre [Vanished World] and the forge – that’s really good. The volunteers are doing a great job and we all want people to stay longer in town.”

Big loss . . . The local pub has now closed in what many are calling a huge blow for Duntroon. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD
Big loss . . . The local pub has now closed in what many are calling a huge blow for Duntroon. PHOTO: DANIEL BIRCHFIELD