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Onwards and upwards . . . Oamaru Business Collective founder Annabel Berry is advocating for a revitalised main street to continue the improving outlook for retailers in Oamaru. PHOTO: GUS PATTERSON

The number of empty shops in Oamaru’s main street has halved over the past eight months. Oamaru Mail reporter Gus Patterson takes a closer look at what’s changed and what’s still to come.

Throughout New Zealand the outlook for retailers is improving, Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive Dougal McGowan says.

Population increase and strong economic growth were contributing factors, but, locally, Mr McGowan praised the grassroots efforts of the Oamaru Business Collective to promote collaboration between, and support for, local businesses.

In March, when the number of empty shops in Oamaru’s main street rose to 18, local business leaders acknowledged there had been a lack of collaboration – and that there was a gap for a local retailers’ association.

Three months later, the Oamaru Business Collective was formed.

Collective founder Annabel Berry, the owner of Design Federation, said since July, there had been several important discussions about creating a positive business environment for all retailers in North Otago.

“Everyone has very different businesses and different levels of experience, but there is a lot of common ground,” Mrs Berry said.

“We want a more vibrant and exciting town for the community, and we can achieve that in a range of different ways.

“Planning and research is what we need to focus on at the start of next year, looking at what our customers and the local community really want from us and then planning ahead how we can work together at different times of the year to enhance our offerings.”

Mrs Berry said she was thrilled more shops in Oamaru’s main street had been filled, and business owners viewed the North Otago town as an attractive place to do business.

The group has been active with initiatives such as late-night shopping and the Oamaru Mail and Real Radio’s Eat, Shop, Enjoy Oamaru promotion.

“We are so grateful to everyone who has made a real effort to shop locally since we started our Shoptober campaign, and I have noticed a huge lift in local engagement with our business, which we so appreciate,” she said.

At a community meeting in July, before the Oamaru Business Collective was officially formed, Mrs Berry presented a plan to revitalise Thames St by reducing part of the road from four lanes to two, and creating a town square.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher also presented a similar proposal, that he said the council had been working on behind the scenes, at the same meeting.

Mrs Berry said the beautification of the town centre was “critical”.

“We need change, and to move on from looking like a town of the 1980s into something more relevant for our community today,” she said.

“Think green spaces, a town centre, areas for events and activities to draw more people to town.

“We also need to tidy up the flow of traffic and improve how visitors and locals immerse themselves with the whole of our town.”

Mr Kircher said the council’s work on a plan to change lower Thames St was continuing.

“They are things which affect traffic movement and things like parking, so generally it is looked at from a roading point of view, at least to start with.

“The other part would be, if we were to do something with that type of concept ,would be [to look at] what sort of space is it.

“We have to make sure the overall design works from a public point of view.”

Waitaki District Council economic development manager Gerard Quinn said the council was happy to discuss what it could do to help local businesses.

“I think there will always be variations in the number of stores that are leased or not. That’s just the nature of how businesses change, grow or decide not to operate,” Mr Quinn said.

“I would actually have to compliment the Oamaru Business Collective and other retailers who are taking matters into their own hands and really doing something about it themselves.

“The reality is, changing things like roads and the infrastructures underneath them, traffic patterns, parking and things is a longer term process.”