Boomtown Revival: The metamorphosis of a mining community
Reefton was a West Coast boomtown during the gold and coal mining era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today it is experiencing another major revival – attracting a new generation of residents and entrepreneurs with a wealth of business ideas. By Glenn Baker. There is no peak-hour traffic in Reefton. At 7.30 on […]
Reefton was a West Coast boomtown during the gold and coal mining era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today it is experiencing another major revival – attracting a new generation of residents and entrepreneurs with a wealth of business ideas. By Glenn Baker.
There is no peak-hour traffic in Reefton. At 7.30 on a Monday morning, with the mist shrouding the surrounding hills, I’m strolling up the main drag of Broadway. It’s blissfully quiet and empty. It’s hard to believe more than a thousand people live here on the doorstep of the West Coast’s spectacular wilderness region – nestled between the pristine, 250,000-hectare Victoria Conservation Park and Paparoa ranges, and with its very own micro-climate.
It’s a beautiful part of the country and Reefton is a heritage-laden town (it has achieved Tohu Whenua landmark status) that’s increasingly becoming a year-round tourist magnet.
The town’s rich past, steeped in the history of the West Coast’s gold and coal mining eras, is now being preserved and revitalised for future generations.
And with that comes exciting new business opportunities.
The revitalisation of Reefton into a contemporary, progressive town can be attributed to a mix of externally-backed and community-led initiatives over time that have produced remarkable outcomes. But things have ramped up considerably in recent years.
A key initiative was to reinstate the distinctive character of Broadway’s Victorian-era commercial buildings – an initiative spearheaded by the Development West Coast (DWC)-funded Reefton Shop Front Project. Most of Reefton’s other landmark public buildings have also been subjected to thorough and authentic makeovers – largely thanks to the efforts of one high profile business entrepreneur – but more about that later.
Which brings me to my early morning stroll up Broadway. I’m off to meet Paul Thomas, a member of the Shop Front Project team, and owner of the Broadway Tearooms & Bakery – one of the aforementioned reinstated heritage buildings.
Over a delicious breakfast Paul explains how he first came to Reefton in 1990. He was a field centre manager for the Department of Conservation and discovered “a very impoverished town”.
Paul immediately fell in love with the place; got involved in the community through the department; and eight years later ramped up his desire to improve the town through his consultancy that specialised in tourism business and heritage management.
“I saw that there was sufficient character from the goldfields era here to make Reefton distinctive, and we should do something to bring it alive and protect it,” he recalls.
The people and organisations who’ve taken on this cause have changed over the years, he says. But a hard core of individuals have been battling away for 30 years, and counting.
To prove the viability of running a business in Reefton, Paul co-invested in the Broadway Tearooms & Bakery. He restored its original style frontage with help from a DWC loan, replaced the piles and sub-floor, then re-opened the doors in 2000 and proceeded to grow turnover from $125k to $1.2 million (ten percent of profits go to heritage causes).
Constant focus on the business and “trimming the sails to get the best performance” have been the keys to success, says Paul, along with consistency in hours and being open seven days a week (in recent years local skifield development has boosted winter sales).
The occasional trip to Christchurch keeps him up to speed on trends and pricing, and a new state-of-the-art kitchen is next on his growth plans.
Paul acknowledges that the revitalisation of Reefton is “a marathon, not a sprint”. He’s proud of how he and a number of locals have held their line on a vision to transform an impoverished town. For inspiration he cites the likes of Canada’s Dawson City and Alaska’s Skagway.
He’s excited about Reefton’s future prospects and the fact that growth and transformation is being fuelled by various organisations such as DWC, by the local community, and by a small wave of business entrepreneurs with the necessary capital, connections and expertise to invest in projects.
He’s talking about the likes of Reefton Distilling Co’s Patsy Bass. Reefton-born and now based, Patsy co-founded the premium distillery and tasting bar in the restored 1870s Haralds General Store, and the whisky and gin brand has quickly gained market visibility both nationally and internationally.
Dame Julie Christie, described in the October 2017 issue of NZBusiness as “the West Coast’s most famous entrepreneurial daughter”, has also been contributing credibility to the cause with her skills and relationships, says Paul.
As for the aforementioned “high profile business entrepreneur”? That is John Bougen, the man who made his fortune through the Dress-Smart chain and various property investments. John came to Reefton to live four years ago and immediately saw the potential to help drag the town out of the doldrums. He absolutely loves the place and his impact is evident almost everywhere you turn.
The stamp that John Bougen has rapidly put on Reefton was evident during an entertaining tour for yours truly later that day. John has turned restoration into an art form – breathing new life and authenticity back into tired, neglected heritage buildings and investing his own time, energy and financial resources to make it happen.
He’s happy to show you the restored gaol, the courthouse, various church buildings and mining facilities, a multi-storey bank, period homes, the local racecourse, a school, the local hall – the man is unstoppable. And with each project, the word authenticity comes to the fore.
Authenticity is fuelling Reefton’s future.
John says he has friends who can’t wait to come to Reefton. It is so unique and different.
“Where else can you have a conversation in the middle of the street? And where else has a community of artists taken over the Workingmen’s Club and turned it around financially? They can’t believe the well-priced food!” he laughs.
My impression of John Bougen is that he’s a modern-day entrepreneurial pioneer – a respected and likeable character who has ruffled a few committee feathers along the way, but nevertheless works within and alongside the local community and has the wherewithal, knowhow and, most importantly, the passion to get things done.
Over lunch at Dawson’s Hotel, John, hotel manager Helen McKenzie, and Dave Hawes, chair of the local Historic Society, share their views on how the town is picking itself up.
They explain how the proliferation of tourist-focused activities around Reefton, including spectacular, well-maintained walking tracks (we’re talking 27 huts and 240 kilometres close by), world-class mountain-bike trails, fishing, and heritage sites is understandably attracting more visitors and putting a squeeze on summer accommodation.
The town is at an interesting stage of its development – growing, but unspoilt. As Helen points out, her guests often refer to Reefton as “just like Arrowtown before it became too commercial”.
“Reefton’s heritage will always be 100 percent part of its development,” says John. “And all credit to those who’re helping make it happen.”
He’s the first to acknowledge the work of others in helping save the town’s heritage buildings, including Dave Hawes. Too many names to mention here.
Dave highlights the growing number of people choosing to live in Reefton – a town that has all the infrastructure required for modern living, including an excellent school, doctor’s surgery, heated swimming baths, ultra-fast broadband, a 3D cinema and world-class (yes, really!) skate-park.
Reefton has reached a tipping point in visitor growth, he explains, which brings associated business opportunities across retail, tourism and food services, as well as the various home-based digital enterprises that are beginning to flourish across town, as more individuals and young families seek better lifestyle and child-care options, affordable housing and lower overheads.
“Reefton is the only true, self-contained town in New Zealand,” John chips in. “It has everything you need.”
And today there is a whole group of business-focused people based in town helping to make connections and remove business development roadblocks, he adds.
Driving out of Reefton that afternoon, I reflect on the amount of pride I’ve just witnessed from the people I’ve spoken to. It’s everywhere.
Dave Hawes referred to Reefton as a place to get that “healing feeling” – a place to unwind the stress. I get that.
While the local gold, coal and forestry industries, and Rosco Contractors (the town’s largest employer) will continue to deliver jobs and underpin development around the district, there is a metamorphosis under way.
Reefton is well and truly out of the doldrums. Business has never been better.
Let there be light
Electrician Greg Topp, owner of Reefton’s Betta Electrical store, is in a happy space right now. His retail appliance store and electrical business has benefited from the uplift in building activity across the region, and his team is involved in many of the projects around town.
“Rewiring old buildings in particular has created a lot of work,” he says. “Business has been incredibly good.”
His son Nathan is taking advantage of the uplift in tourism too, with his Inland Adventures rafting business performing well above expectations.
On top of all this new business activity, Greg and the Reefton Powerhouse Trust last year managed to secure funding of around $4.5 million to help restore the old river-fuelled Reefton powerhouse and install a modern generator to feed into the national grid.
At last there is sufficient funding to back an idea that was first mooted around 18 years ago.
It’s all systems go to build what will become arguably the town’s biggest tourist attraction.
In 1888 the original powerhouse made Reefton the first town in New Zealand and the Southern Hemisphere to have a fully functioning, reticulated electricity supply, complete with incandescent street lights. That’s why Reefton is today promoted as “The Town of Light”.
“Reefton was hot on the heels of New York and London,” says Greg, who is a fountain of knowledge on the power station’s history.
His best guesstimate is to have the whole project completed by the end of 2020.
The Buller district experienced a major economic downturn between 2012 and 2018, largely due to the Holcim cement plant closure and changes in the coal mining industry.
So Reefton’s reawakening has been especially encouraging for Development West Coast (DWC) – the charitable trust charged with supporting and growing business in the region.
Chief executive Chris Mackenzie puts it down to civic pride and the entrepreneurial spirit of local businesses.
“It shows that by working towards a shared goal, creative entrepreneurs can help change the fortunes of their towns and ensure the long-term vitality of their communities.”
Reefton’s transformation has set a virtuous cycle in motion, he says. “As more buildings are renovated, people are becoming more upbeat about the town’s future which is resulting in a new breed of entrepreneurs investing there.”
Funding for larger projects is becoming easier to find. For example, the Reefton Powerhouse project has brought in significant investment from the Buller District Council, DWC and Lotteries. Once complete the powerhouse will be yet another drawcard for the town – opening further business opportunities.
Chris points out that in today’s saturated market, discerning consumers want to know the
stories behind the products they’re buying. “This is an area where products made in towns like Reefton, which have unique identities, have a clear advantage.”
The West Coast is an ‘untamed natural wilderness’, he adds, with more than 85 percent of the region conservation land. It’s steeped in a rich history full of colourful characters, and local entrepreneurs are embracing this sense of place in their brand stories.
Reefton Distilling Co. is a great example. “You are not just buying a product; you are buying an experience steeped in the history and people of Reefton. This is an absolute masterclass in branding.
“But most importantly it is completely authentic.”