It’s a weekend morning in Invercargill and the southern town is humming quietly.
While the fortunes of this part of town have had their ups and downs, one thing has remained constant: the people who live, work and shop here are generous and fiercely loyal, business owners say.
And many of them have been around long enough to know that.
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There’s Graham Lewis, for example, who started at Baillie And Lewis Chemists on Martin Street around 1976, and New World owner Bradley Patton, who bought the store from his parents and as a child lived off the across the road in what is now a Night and Day.
Next door, Daryle and Kim Blackler run the latest South Island United Video, which has become something of a community hub as they branch out.
Then there are those like Sheryl Wood, who started her business SherylAnn’s Place in the south end of town, moved out, and came back; or Allister McKay, owner of Hair Mechanics, who is quietly looking for ways to help the community.
Many business owners say they were drawn to the south end of town because they saw a void that was unfilled for the south end community of Invercargill.
It is the only concentrated business district south of Tweed St.
The last census counted 18,000 people in the 9812 postcode area alone.
At the center of this community is South City Mall and it was the first of its kind when it opened in 1985.
Lewis is calling back more than 30 applications to take charge of one of the mall’s 18 stores.
It became the home of BNZ Bank, a butcher, a video store, the very popular Copenhagen Cones, clothing stores and even a Miter 10, among others.
The closure of the Ocean Beach Freezing Works in Bluff in 1991 left 1,500 people out of work – many of them South Invercargill residents.
New jobs were hard to find and many left the area while those who remained had less purchasing power and so business began to move elsewhere.
Today, 13 of the South City Mall’s stores are empty and surrounding businesses say the new tenants would bring more foot traffic while shoppers would like to see healthier food options and clothing retailers.
Mall owner Sam Lee has a vision to create a “one-stop playground” with entertainment for people of all ages.
He imagines parents bringing their children to buy ice cream or toys, and even maybe a playroom, while he believes that an Asian supermarket could be well done in the neighborhood.
As Highlanders Sushi & Donburi Manager Angeli Kim has found, shoppers who were initially apprehensive about something new have come to appreciate healthy Asian cuisine.
Lee bought the property seven years ago with plans to upgrade and modernize the building, but it proved costly, with roof repairs alone costing $70,000.
Covid-19 had also dashed hopes of attracting new tenants, he said, with few people keen to start a new business during a pandemic.
The Blacklers started United Video in the mall, but moved when the business outgrew its space.
The video library’s current location on the east side of Elles Road is its fourth location in South City and Daryle Blackler says he would not consider leaving the area.
“There is nowhere else that would be as good.”
As streaming services replace DVD rentals, the Blacklers have adapted, selling incense sourced from Asia and the Pacific, lollipops sourced from the United States and pop culture collectibles.
The storage of collectible card games led to the establishment of game nights.
And while there may be fewer people visiting the store to rent movies, Blackler says he hasn’t seen much change in his customers.
As part of business diversification, Blackler leased part of its store space to Unichem Southcity Pharmacy Steve Jo who moved the pharmacy, Post Shop and Kiwibank across from the South City Mall.
Vaccinations and Covid-19 testing are a focus for Jo as the advent of online shopping has made things more difficult for retailers, but Jo says he also sees economic pressures weighing on regular customers.
“There is a huge income gap between North Invercargill and South Invercagill, and it is growing. I’ve seen people not take medications or supplements because they’re worried about money. Social disparity is the biggest thing impacting the southern city.
Glasine’s Café Bar and Gaming owner Matthew Smellie has been in business since 2000 and he too would like to see more businesses move in.
“The key in this area is to ensure that we have a wide range of retailers. And retailers need to be successful in what they do,” he says.
When Bradley and Rebecca Patton bought Elles Road New World in 2016, Bradley’s parents, Barry and Marie Patton, had already been running the business for over 30 years.
Customers always send their regards to his parents. “Looks like everyone knows dad.”
A limit on residential developments has capped the available clientele, but Patton hopes new developments planned for Kew Bowl and Tramway Rd will bring new families to the area.
“A lot of our business comes from the fact that it’s always convenient to shop here.”
Like other business owners here, Patton regularly supports local causes and events – whether it’s being part of the Healthy Families Invercargill leadership group or raising donations for food banks.
He gives credit to New World and its owner-operator model that allows for stronger community ties.
“We are a community store, so we need to have connections with community groups.”
Like South Alive, which was created 10 years ago to restore the pride of South Invercargill.
Almost all of the business owners here praise the urban rejuvenation project for the revitalization of the area.
“They really brought South Invercargill to life,” says Blackler.
What started as a simple cleaning up of the business district has grown into a community center, supported by a community store and regular events like the popular Christmas street party.
South Alive President Beryl Wilcox says helping people feel proud of their community improves their well-being.
“It’s about creating a community space where people can feel comfortable.”
The Invercargill Community Connections Charitable Trust hopes to build on this with its Saving Grace project which will transform a vacant church on Grace St into a dedicated community development space.
The owners say investing in young people in the south end of the city will help them build their lives to become the next generation of shoppers.