Working together = humming and thriving communities
In all the news coming out of the United States right now it was very easy to miss this ray of light coming out of Auckland’s largest and fastest growing sub-region South Auckland. Particularly in regards to a little mall left for dead now absolutely humming again as it once did in 1967.
Covid-19: South Auckland shoppers shun the city in favour of community spending
Troels Sommerville. 05:00, Nov 08 2020
Shopkeeper Nilesh Kumar is stunned at how busy he is.
“There were more people in here than during Christmas,” he says.
The owner of Southmall Jewellers in the heart of Manurewa’s Southmall shopping centre has been in business for 17 years.
When his business had to shut up shop – not once, but twice – thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, he was left to sit at home “very stressed” about the future of his business.
But when he returned to his shop, so did the shoppers.
“People were not going away,” Kumar says. “They weren’t going into the city and spending their money, instead that money is coming back into the local community.”
While he admits the numbers of people flocking to the centre have eased since Auckland emerged from its second lockdown, Kumar says the impact was far less than he initially thought it might be.
Straight across from his store, Penny Yan proudly points out the three shops she owns – all which managed to survive two lockdowns.
“We made it through. I was worried at first, but everything seems quite good now.”
In a time when the NZ Retail Association warned of 10,000 shop closures within the next year, Yan and Southmall seem to have bucked the trend. All 60 businesses in the centre emerged on the other side of the second lockdown intact and ready to trade.
Footfall in Manurewa in the month after the first lockdown only dropped seven per cent compared to the same time last year, while in the month after August’s shutdown the recovery was slower.
Out on Great South Rd, Classic Cafe owner Pat Phay says it was hard to survive the lockdowns, but a strong community spirit was her saving grace.
“It’s the regulars and families that are coming to our cafe who help us survive,” Phay says.
It’s a noticeable contrast to the fortunes of shops in Auckland’s CBD, where the streets and, more importantly, the businesses, are far less packed than they were this time in 2019.
While Southmall managed to navigate two lockdowns successfully, the blueprint for its resilience was drawn up seven years ago, when shop owners decided to take control of their own destiny.
By then the shine had worn off from it’s opening day in 1967 when it became one of New Zealand’s first American-style shopping malls. Shops were empty, foot traffic continued a downward spiral and rough sleepers had made the centre home and were intimidating customers. Business had moved up the road to Westfield Manukau, and it wasn’t coming back.
In response the shop owners who made up the body corporate decided to rid themselves of their centre management and put their own man, Neil Punja, in charge.
“Southmall died, back in 2013 it was dead,” Punja says. “We were already in the red, if we hadn’t done that takeover, we would’ve been finished.
“But I have skin in the game, I’m on the ground and I have relationships with the other shopkeepers.”
His first order of business was turning the focus away from competing with the larger mall and towards small, owner-operated businesses serving the locals. He set up community-led initiatives and fostered relationships between landlords and tenants.
Because of that community-first approach, when Covid-19 stopped business in its tracks, many of the landlords and tenants banded together creating ad-hoc deals for temporary rent reductions and, in some cases, rent holidays.
A free bus has been set up to replace the buses that stopped running along Great South Rd past the shopping centre. Three days a week it can be hailed anywhere along the route, with the elderly making the most use out of it.
There’s a programme hiring Work and Income job seekers as Town Centre Ambassadors to give them experience and help with their CVs – within six months 85 percent of them find work.
“Covid gave us a really tough time, but it’s also brought us closer and certainly slowed us down in a certain way,” Lang said. “And the mall seems to represent that.”
Seven years Southmall was left for dead. On Saturday I was passing through in the evening and the place was absolutely humming and brimming with activity. And Manurewa is not the only town centre to do so with Papatoetoe, Otara, Mangere, Mangere Bridge, Otahuhu, and Manukau City Centre all humming along with activity. In fact Manukau City Centre pre Covid has an issue with not enough hospitality spaces. Now in the Post Covid era we are returning to the same situation (it is both a good and bad thing).
This shows the power of Local knowing Local, and Local supporting Local. It also shows resilience, adaptation and playing to your strengths rather than trying to compete with Manukau City Centre in order to survive.
It demonstrates as long been shown that the South will support the South and has never identified with Auckland City Centre (and never will).
It also demonstrates that despite being told for the last 10 years Auckland Council is still not listening to the communities of the South either – not that it matters given the communities down here forge ahead regardless and continue to foster their identity.
None-the-less it is great to see our communities rally together and support one another. Something Heart in the City might want to learn rather then their continuous whinge about no International students or tourism (that will not be returning either for a very long time).
Looking at Southmall, Manurewa.