Can Hastings become a destination for arts and culture? Its council hopes so

Hastings' renovated Municipal Chambers will open in July and August after years of change.
The renovated Municipal Chambers will open in July and August after years of change. Photo credit: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

By Tom Kitchin of RNZ

Hastings is getting a makeover - the city known as birthplace of the Mongrel Mob is repositioning itself as an arts and culture mecca.

There are millions of dollars of investment throughout the district and new developments are soon to open in the city centre.

Heretaunga St East is becoming the lifeblood of the city with multiple bars, restaurants, a speciality chocolate shop and French bakery, among others.

Local bar The Common Room is there, and celebrated its ninth year over the weekend.

It is a craft, alternative style pub, promoting itself as "the sweetest little bar in Hastings".

Proprietor Gerard Barron said when he started there was a just sex shop across the road, a Work and Income office and boarded up shops.

"It was pretty grim, Hastings like a lot of provincial towns rough the country through Rogernomics and stuff, the freezing works shut down in Whakatu, it was a tough time, and obviously we've got the Mongrel Mob here - and it was a bit of a ghost town - there were a lot of tumbleweeds."

His bar was the first of the boutique, speciality style in that space.

"It was a few lonely years, sitting by yourself and a lot of people said I was mad - a lot of the established bar owners in Havelock [North], they admitted to me later they gave me six months."

Hastings The Common Room owner Gerard Barron.
The Common Room owner Gerard Barron. Photo credit: RNZ / Tom Kitchin

Jill Laird at gift shop Coco and Co agreed, saying the area had changed significantly.

"The whole environment of the street's changed, people on the street has changed - for the better - so much nicer."

Still, the constant road works, due to the developments, had not been good for business.

"That's affected us quite a bit, it's been quite quiet, it's affected the foot traffic."

Across the road at wine bar Decibel, Paul Sanders called the road works short-term pain for long-term gain.

"So that was fairly uncomfortable, obviously it affected our traffic," he said.

"That seems to have quietened down at least immediately - there's still a bit of road works going along further up."

He was looking at the next block over, where half the street was blocked off as the council upgraded the old Municipal Buildings.

This is a huge multimillion dollar project - Toitoi - that aims to revitalise Hastings' arts and culture.

The opera house beside it has been finished and the municipal buildings are weeks away from opening. There will be a brand new i-Site, speciality shops and a massive upstairs ballroom.

The development is led by the Hastings District Council.

Its chief executive Nigel Bickle said the project had been a long time coming, since the area was shut for earthquake strengthening.

"This will have been a journey of eight years and $40 million investment to bring this back - but as a space that's fundamentally for the community, but also as a place, for Hastings we're trying to position as a genuine destination for arts and culture."

He said closing off roads was never welcome, but council had tried to be transparent.

"It is disruptive, and I think the things about trying to be upfront in the business community around saying 'this is why we're doing it, how do we go about this in a way that minimises disruption?"'

The official reopening for the municipal buildings is due to be in August.

There are more than 40 commercial and industrial developments in the Hastings district - including a new $100m automated packhouse for orchardists Turners and Growers - one of, if not, the largest in the southern hemisphere, and New Zealand's second biggest wind farm.

As for the attraction of Hastings, Gerard Barron put it in frank terms.

"I think there's a certain amount of workingman's honesty here. I think Napier is our pin-up girl for tourism and stuff, but there's only so many Art Deco buildings that I can deal with."