Growth towns: Long in Napier's shadow, Hastings gets a new lease of life

by Sarah Catherall / 27 November, 2018
Portraits by Michael Schultz.

Hastings night markets. Photo/Russell Taylor.

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Sibling rivalry between Napier and Hastings has a long history in Hawke’s Bay. Since the 80s, it’s been all about Napier, with its art deco buildings and seaside charm. But popularity has also led to unaffordability – and across the Heretaunga Plains, sister-city Hastings is enjoying a new lease of life. Sarah Catherall reports.

As a teenager in Napier in the 1980s, I yearned to live in Hastings. Of the twin cities, Hastings seemed more glamorous and exciting than my home town 20km along a potholed highway. Hastings was the more advanced twin, with its main street heaving with shops – department stores like Westerman’s and Woolworths, and haberdashery store Bon Marche – along with parks lush with oak trees and rose gardens. A trip to Hastings meant a stopover at Rush Munro’s for gourmet ice cream, and a ride on the train at Fantasyland – New Zealand’s Disneyland.

But from the mid-80s, Hastings faded as Napier’s star rose. Napier had art deco architecture lovingly restored to its former glory, a hill laden with graceful villas and a stretch of turquoise coast. While Napier lured tourists, new residents and, more recently, cruise ships, Hastings languished in the background, on the inland flats. It was also hit hard by the closure of two freezing works in the 80s and 90s.

Driving through Hastings today, however, is to witness a town going through what loyal locals call “the Hastings revival”. Pink banners hang off lampposts, boasting the new city slogan, “Hastings Proud”; 20- and 30-somethings who grew up there are returning, drawn by lower house prices and the sense of living in a city on the brink of change.

Businesses are moving in or expanding. Many depend on the fertile Heretaunga plains and its crops – Hastings is one of the largest fruit processors in the country. Sunfruit Group has built a $25 million state-of-the-art packhouse. Locally owned timber company Tumu is busy building hundreds of thousands of pallets and kiwifruit bins, and employs 150 staff. Kiwibank has opened a regional office in Hastings, bringing 130 jobs.

Sitting in their Hastings brewery, Matt and Gemma Smith are proud locals. Matt, 32, and Gemma, 30, both grew up in Hastings, fleeing it for tertiary education and travel. After marrying, they lived in Auckland’s Ōnehunga before they decided to move south to raise their daughters closer to their families.

Gemma, a teacher, had no sense of pride about Hastings when she left it more than a decade ago. “I’d tell my Auckland friends I came from Hawke’s Bay, but I’d never admit that meant Hastings because of the negative stigma,” she says.

“We always felt Napier was the nice part of Hawke’s Bay,” adds Matt.

Matt and Gemma Smith with daughters Matilda, 3, and Harriet, 1.

However, for many first-time home buyers seeking to return to or set up in Hawke’s Bay, houses in both Napier and Havelock North (a village suburb of Hastings) are now out of reach. Four years ago, the Smiths paid $320,000 for their first home: a three-bedroom house on a 700sqm section on the east side of Hastings. Their mortgage was the same weekly outlay as their Ōnehunga rent.

Matt, a self-taught brewer, dabbled with making beer in their home garage. They opened Brave Brewing in 2014, one of about 10 breweries set up in the district over the past decade, moving out of the garage and into new premises 18 months ago

Housing affordability lured them back to their childhood town, but also the climate and relaxed lifestyle, says Gemma, who regularly takes daughters Matilda, three, and Harriet, one, to the library and the city’s many parks.

Gerard Barron and Jess Souter Barron were similarly drawn by the cheaper cost of living. They shifted to Hawke’s Bay from Auckland 14 years ago, buying their 1946 former state house for around $200,000. “Auckland was great, but we got sick of the traffic,” recalls Gerald. “We drove around New Zealand looking for somewhere to live and arrived in Hawke’s Bay.”

As Jess explains, they were “looking for the potential in places, rather than places that were already happening. It’s really difficult to find somewhere to raise kids and have the kind of harmonious life we all hark back to. Now, our kids bike everywhere, we see native birds, we have our rivers and our hills. But we’re real urbanites and we also need a place where we can get a decent cup of coffee.”

With a background in communications, Jess is one of the city’s voluntary movers and shakers. She hosts debates and arts events, and instigated the dozen murals of Hastings icons now dotted around the city walls.

Out the back of their Mahora house on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, Gerard prods a piece of Angus topside sizzling on the barbecue. Children Baxter, 15, Isabella, 13 and Willoughby, 10, join their parents around a rustic dining table. Tucking into a slice of meat, Gerard talks about his love for the “Hastings edge”.

“To me, Napier and Havelock are the Remuera and Epsom of Hawke’s Bay. Hastings feels like [Auckland’s] Kingsland or Grey Lynn. Napier has its brand, but doesn’t really do it for me.” 

Gerard Barron and Jess Souter Barron with their children (from left) Willoughby, 10, Baxter, 15, and Isabella, 13. The couple moved to Hawke's Bay from Auckland 14 years ago, and bought this 1946 former state house for around $200,000.

Five years ago, Gerard opened his bar, Common Room, having seen an opportunity for a bar that doubles as a music venue. In that time, he’s watched the Hastings community change. “When I opened the bar, the main comment was, ‘You’re mad, there’s nothing there.’ Now there are more bars and restaurants opening, and shops too.”

Says Jess: “We felt like pioneers. Up till about 10 years ago, a lot of people had given up on Hastings. They just wanted to get the place to being ‘okay’, rather than ‘let’s celebrate’. But since then, a lot of people have come here with really good intentions and that’s overtaken the anti-Hastings sentiment.”

The city is carved into blocks and bisected by a railway line, dividing long streets into east and west. Gerard and Jess’s bar sits in a stretch of Heretaunga St’s east block. Across the road, Cupple cafe shares a space with bakery Ya Bon. On a weekday morning, bakers are at work, rolling dough on wooden boards. Along the road is organic cafe Cornucopia. New business is contagious; newcomers include homeware store Magpie, a craft collective and Fun Buns Asian street food. A gin distillery is about to move in across the road.

Gerard feels Hastings doesn’t really have a brand, “so it’s in the unique position of being able to formulate one. It’s always going to be an agricultural and provincial centre, but it doesn’t have to be stuck in the 1950s. There are a lot more reasons for people to stay now.”

One of the city’s most popular eateries is Opera Kitchen, which serves food described as “Hastings raised”. Next door, Sophie Wallace runs Parlour Projects, a contemporary art gallery that promotes local talent. Wallace grew up in Havelock North, left to study in Auckland, and returned two years ago to set up a gallery. It would have been obvious, even cliched, to open a contemporary gallery in Napier or Havelock North. “But Hastings has this slightly grungy side. It’s really shrugging off its old image and becoming a creative hub of the region,” she says.

Five years ago, Gerard opened his bar, Common Room, which doubles as a music venue. In that time, he says he's watched the Hastings community change.

I drive past the former Tōmoana freezing works, where my grandfather, Jack Catherall, once worked as a meat inspector. When it closed in 1994, 1400 people lost their jobs. That was on top of the 1500 people who lost their jobs in 1986 when the Whakatū freezing works closed. Both losses hit the local workforce hard.

Hastings City District Council developed an urban improvement plan in 2013. A key development is to make the CBD feel more compact; currently the main street sprawls for kilometres, dotted with a mix of heritage buildings and ugly boxes. Under the city plan, two-storey heritage buildings can be converted to apartments.

In the mid-2000s, Nelson Park was sold to make way for a retail park. Big box development – The Warehouse, a Mitre 10 Mega and others – moved into the sprawling site, where parking is free. The development is controversial, as it has drawn retail away from the city centre’s attractive art deco and mission-style buildings, where a scattering of empty shops have been slapped with “for lease” signs.

Jane and Steve Houlahan are in their mid-50s and have lived in Hastings all their lives. They met at primary school, and began dating when Steve was at St John’s College and Jane at the former Tenison College. Jane grew up with her four siblings in the same Hastings bungalow where she and Steve raised their four children, now in their 20s and 30s. They have seen Hastings rise and fall and rise again.

As a teenager, Steve had an after-school job washing floors at Watties, when it was still locally owned; in 1992, the food processing company was bought by the American firm Heinz. Steve’s brother was made redundant when Whakatū closed. Steve has run his own plumbing business for 24 years, and seen its fortunes move in step with the building industry.

Jane, a nurse at the Hastings Health Centre, spends her leisure time walking the dog in the city’s many parks. However, she wouldn’t walk at night, and her biggest concern is safety (the city spends $1 million a year on city patrols).

Steve’s main concerns? “Gangs are a big problem here.”

Both say they love the climate and nearby beaches, the city’s cycle trails and local wineries, as well as their longtime friendships. Steve points to the new $25 million regional sports park as one of the city’s assets, Jane to the local orchard shops. “Hastings is the fruit bowl of New Zealand. We get the most incredible fresh fruit and produce here.”

Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst. Photo/Michael Schultz

That’s a point backed up by Hastings mayor Sandra Hazlehurst, whose council is a member of the regional economic campaign Great Things Grow Here. “Food is the new fashion. Our children are coming back and absolutely reviving Hastings,” she says.

She grew up in Hastings during its 70s “boom time”, when her parents ran a bakery. When she left for London, she missed her region’s produce: tree-ripened apples, pears and stonefruit, along with sweet strawberries she used to hand-pick in summer.

Now she’s overseeing the city’s business growth and development initiative, which includes pitches to government departments to relocate parts of their business. The Eastern District headquarters for police, a $20 million project, is due to open in Hastings by the end of next year. Meanwhile, the Omahu industrial zone is home to a number of businesses, including two big companies: Bostock New Zealand, which grows organic produce and runs free-range chickens, and Furnware, a school furniture manufacturer that sells to 30 countries and employs 160 people.

“We’ve got the land and… the technology to service government departments and big business,” says Hazlehurst. “We’re also trying to get more young people into horticulture – in technical, skilled jobs.”

There are more than 9400 businesses in the Hastings district, the largest sector being manufacturing, followed by agriculture, forestry and fishing. Sunfruit owns 15 orchards in Hawke’s Bay and three in the Waikato. Its new packhouse-coolstore is the largest of its kind in New Zealand at 12,500sqm and the first to be built in Hawke’s Bay in 15 years. The company sends out a million cartons of apples a year, supplying international markets along with New Zealand’s Countdown supermarkets through its “Pick Mee” brand.

Managing director and owner John Altham commutes weekly between his Hamilton and Hastings operations. “Hastings is where it’s happening,” he says. “This is the largest apple-growing region in the country… exporting the best apples to the world.”

Along with recently creating 50 high-skilled jobs, the company pumps around $5 million a year into the local economy. It is also planting more than 250,000 new apple trees in the region and plans to double production.

For locals and visitors who want to buy fruit direct from the source, the Hawke’s Bay Farmers’ Market is open every Sunday morning at the local showgrounds, where rosy red apples tower on wooden tables alongside the wares of local growers and artisan food producers. The market has acted as a testing ground for many new products. It was here in the mid-2000s that Cecile Buchanan began selling her homemade muesli – Cecile’s Muesli is now on supermarket shelves throughout the country.

There’s even a sense that Hastings’ sprawling satellite suburb of Flaxmere is on the rise. When first built in the 60s, Flaxmere was intended as a lifestyle destination for the middle class. It was a utopian vision that went wrong, and often ends up in the news for all the wrong reasons.

Today, Flaxmere has one of the worst social deprivation indexes of the region, the highest unemployment (18% in the 2013 Census, triple the overall Hastings rate), and the cheapest real estate. Search on Trade Me for houses in the district and three-bedroom homes in Flaxmere pop up for $180,000.

Geographically, it sits just off the Napier-Hastings expressway via tree-lined Flaxmere Ave, dotted with 60s and 70s single-storey homes. Lampposts dangle the same pink “Hastings Proud” banners.

City councillor Henare O’Keefe. Photo/Michael Schultz

At 3.30pm on a Monday, teens pour out of Flaxmere College. The suburb is home to a third of the district’s youth. The shopping centre is on the edge of leafy Flaxmere Park, both of which will be refurbished as the council turns its attention to improving the suburb.

City councillors Henare O’Keefe and Jacoby Poulain are proud Flaxmere locals pushing for improvements. O’Keefe, 65, came to national prominence in 2008 when he led an “Enough is enough” march from Flaxmere to Hastings CBD in protest against family violence. Named Kiwibank Community Hero of the Year in 2012 for his work with at-risk youth and family violence prevention, he says Flaxmere has grown out of many of its problems over the past decade. “We’re not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But we’ve got a community that’s not in grievance mode anymore.”

He talks about “dentists and architects and engineers being spewed out of this beloved place of ours. You couldn’t say that a decade ago. We don’t have a monopoly on crime. There was a time when you could have said that, but you can’t now.”

Poulain, 34, returned to Flaxmere after studying law at Otago. “Flaxmere is growing in emotional and mental maturity and also physically,” she says.

They point to an area of Flaxmere that’s been called Hastings’ wild west, but where there are now signs of hope, including a new co-housing development, the Waingakau village project, which will provide 110 new houses and a community hub. Says O’Keefe: “We’ll have a school, a marae... houses are going to be affordable, through rent-to-buy and private ownership. The land has been sitting there dormant for decades. There’ll be no fences, and people will be able to congregate together. It’s a sign of all the good things that are happening here.”

Fast facts on Hastings

Distance from:

Hawke’s Bay Regional Airport: 25km, 26 minutes by car.

Napier: 20km. Havelock North: 5km.

Taupo: 158km. Wellington: 300km.

Population: Hastings district: 79,900 (includes Havelock North, Flaxmere, Haumoana, Te Awanga, Clive, Waimārama, Ocean Beach).

Under 25: 35%

Median home value: $406,000

Median weekly rent: $337

Average annual rates: $2413

Medical services: Hawke’s Bay Regional Hospital is in Hastings.

Schools: Wide range includes two single-sex secondary schools, a Catholic college for boys (St John’s) and state-integrated Lindisfarne College.

Climate: Situated on the Heretaunga Plains, Hastings gets a bountiful 2252 sunshine hours a year; it has long, fine summers with average high temperatures in the mid-20s, and short, cool winters.

Regional economy: Economic growth averaged 1.1% over the past 10 years (compared to 1.8% nationwide). Manufacturing was the largest contributor to GDP (16.4%) over the past two years, followed by agriculture, forestry and fishing combined (11.9%).

Broadband: High-speed fibre is provided by Unison and Spark.

Water/environment: Since the contamination of Havelock North water two years ago, the Hastings District Council has invested $48 million in new infrastructure, which will be finished in four years.

Recreation: Hastings district is blessed with Te Mata Peak in Havelock North for hiking and old English-style city parks such as Frimley and Cornwall. The water park Splash Planet (formerly Fantasyland) is the most popular tourist attraction. The wider region also has 200km of cycle trails and 76 wineries. For art and culture lovers, there’s the Hastings City Art Gallery and the Hawke’s Bay Opera House, a beautiful example of Spanish mission architecture. Built in 1915, it’s being strengthened and redeveloped, and is due to reopen next year. Hastings’ two big annual events are the equestrian festival Horse of the Year, in March, and the Blossom Parade in spring.

Resilience/futureproofing: The beach at Haumoana is eroding by 50cm horizontally and about 10cm vertically each year, affecting seafront homes. Towards Te Awanga, the coastal road to Cape Kidnappers is also eroding. The council plans to build a 400m sea wall to protect the Clifton coastline and ensure public access.

This was published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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