Pro Features

Reinventing retail: The Cuba Street of Hastings

Take a walk along Heretaunga Street East’s ‘200 block’ and you’ll find the central Hastings precinct buzzing with retail excitement – except in one corner.

The windows of the former long-time home of Denton Wyatt Books on the corner of Heretaunga and Warren Streets, which closed in late 2017, have been whited-out ahead of a major redevelopment.

But elsewhere, along the stretch between Warren Street and Karemu Road, Heretaunga Street East is as vibrant as it’s ever been, with a range of artisan food producers and local retailers plying their trade under awnings decorated with bright hanging flower baskets.

It’s a major transformation from five years ago when the 200 block was the uninviting home of the local WINZ office, second- hand traders and a sex shop doing a roaring trade in synthetic cannabis.

Back then, the street still had heart, with the likes of long-term occupant Cornucopia, but the café and food store’s customers were becoming unhappy with the antics of some of the people turning up to buy legal highs across the road.

Today, WINZ, the sex shop and the second- hand stores are gone, replaced by retailers such as La Petite Chocolat, Y’A Bon French Baker and long-time Hastings furniture business Hutchinson’s.

The space left by Denton Wyatt won’t be vacant for long. Local winemaking couple Kate Galloway and David Ramonteu have secured the site for a craft spirits distillery and cellar door they hope to open around mid-2018.

The distillery will help to further cement the block as the city’s premium precinct for artisan producers of local food and drink.

Hastings businessman Michael Whittaker, who owns several properties in the 200 block, says its transformation is a leading example for New Zealand of how small, local stores can successfully evolve to thrive in an age when shoppers are easily enticed by big box retailing and e-commerce.

Adding a ‘cellar door’ in
the retail mix

Kate, the former chief
winemaker at Alpha Domus, says her link to the block goes back to the late 1990s when she began shopping at Cornucopia and Humanity Books.

The distillery she and David are developing “will be akin to a winery cellar door experience,” where customers will be able to sample, buy and view the production process, but there are no initial plans to include a cocktail bar.

Gerard Barron and Jess Soutar Barron’s decision to open the Common Room bar in 2012 is seen as one of the major recent changes on the block, and last year Nick Pike opened Funbuns, a “Bao buns and cocktails” joint across the road.

“[The distillery] should complement the existing businesses well,” says Kate.

“We’ve been talking about a lot of collaborations with Funbuns and with the Common Room bar so I think it should all work in well. With all these boutique shops and artisan producers around here, we thought these are like-minded people and this is where we’d really like to be,” she says.

“While [the Denton Wyatt building] probably isn’t the easiest building to work with because of the way it’s been modernised, it was really the last of its kind on the block so we thought, well, this is where we want to be so we’d better secure it.”

Kate says the popular union of eatery Carr’s Kitchen and craft beer brand Brave Brewing, with premises further down Warren Street, shows how the Hawke’s Bay drinks market has matured.

“The wineries are great and they’ll always be the backbone of it, but it’s just good to see beer and craft spirit coming into it as well.”

Attracting retailers with heart

Michael Whittaker’s involvement with the block began in 2012 when he bought the disused Albert Hotel property on the Karamu Road corner, subsequently demolishing it to create what is now Albert Square.

“We’d say that the 200 block was pretty derelict – every second shop was vacant – but therein lay the opportunity. We purchased the Albert Hotel with the intention of demolishing it [because] we wanted to develop Albert Square as a green space to really say, hey, this block has changed. So it went from a corner that had a derelict old building with vagrants living in it to a smart green space that the public could use.”

Michael now has interests in a number of properties on the block and has plans up his sleeves for further revitalisation.

“When I started it I always said to myself, it’s going to take 10 years to slowly rework the fabric of the block. I’m not a developer as such, I’d like to think I’m more of a re- developer. I’m not buying these buildings, doing them up and selling them. I’m a long- term investor in Hastings – and I’m putting my money where my mouth is to create something that’s in keeping with 21st century retailing.”

Michael says his strategy has involved only leasing to private, Hawke’s Bay-owned and operated businesses.

“They had to have their heart in the business, they had to have their heart in the block. I had no interest, and still have no interest, in getting chain retailers or corporate retailers in there because that’s a key part of the revitalisation process – you have to have people who believe in the block.”

Secondly, he says, he’s worked to ensure there was “an overriding theme for the block”.

“It’s all about experiential retail and in our case we’ve tried to attract experienced food retailers like La Petite Chocolat, where they do their manufacturing in the shop, and Y’A Bon, which is a full manufacturing bakery – one of the best French bakeries in New Zealand, all behind glass, where you can see how it works,” he says.

“We’ve got future plans for a number of other experiential retailers that we’re talking to, to come into the block as well.”

He is not involved in Kate and David’s redevelopment of the Denton Wyatt site

but says: “We’re working with them very closely and we’re helping out where we can because my view is anyone who wants to put their shoulder to the wheel and create an interesting block, we all have to hang together and help. We’ve got food retailing; what we’re trying to do is really extend that into the hospitality side.”

Fixing Hastings’ CBD

The Hastings CBD has long been criticised for being too large, with its sprawling length deterring shoppers, who instead are attracted to the large format retail zone off Karamu Rd on the central city fringe.

It’s an issue Hastings District Council has been trying to address over the past few years, with a focus on encouraging the creations of ‘precincts’ in line with what is happening on the 200 block, part of a ‘mixed commercial, office, entertainment and retail’ zone.

On the other side of the rail line that bisects the city, the first blocks of Heretaunga Street West are a focused retail precinct, while the council is in the midst of making visitor-

friendly enhancements to the central mall beside the rail track.

Michael, who chaired the Hastings Business Association for four years until standing down in 2017, says creating engaging experiences for shoppers is a key way bricks-and-mortar retailers are remaining competitive against the online shopping explosion.

“At the end of the day, the Internet is going to play an increasing role in retail shopping; however, people will still want – and I think will increasingly demand – a retail experience. They want theatre. You only get so much satisfaction clicking on a screen. So whatever you do you have to make sure [CBD retailing] is interesting and it’s an experience.

“That’s clearly the retail direction of the future and I’d like to think the 200 block is leading that in many ways in New Zealand.”

Big move, no regrets

After 54 years at its previous site, it took a seismic safety nightmare to shift Hutchinson’s into the 200

block, but now the iconic Hastings retailer wouldn’t be anywhere else.

The former Hastings Municipal Building tenant was forced to move in 2014 when the municipal complex, including the Hawke’s Bay Opera House, was closed for major earthquake strengthening work.

At the time, Hutchinson’s director Hamish Gibbs considered the move to be temporary, given the store’s half-century association with the former site, but now there are no plans to shift back.

“It was pretty empty when we moved here and since then all the empty spots have been taken up, which is brilliant, for lots of reasons,” he says.

“It’s full, it’s vibrant, it’s lively and it’s attracting people. People are enjoying the retail experience from the whole block. All the businesses complement each other and there’s just a good vibe and we’re really enjoying it.

“There are lots of clients of ours who are recent arrivals to Hawke’s Bay – whether it’s from New Zealand or overseas – and they just find Hastings is humming.

“[In the Municipal Buildings block] we were pretty much a destination store but now we’re part of a real buzz.

“We’ve invested for the future in here. This is the Cuba Street of Hastings.”