From the Regions: Invercargill’s HW Richardson Group

HWR directors and husband and wife, Scott and Jocelyn O’Donnell – daughter of HWR founder Bill Richardson. Image: HWR Group

From transport operator to tourism attraction owner and now city landlord and developer, HW Richardson Group is transforming its hometown of Invercargill into a unique tourism destination. Director Scott O’Donnell tells the Ticker about its latest attraction, Dig This, the company’s plans for a new $100m town centre and the implications for the region’s tourism offering.

We have 12,000 trucks, 600 utes, as well as diggers, graders, and dozers so we thought “wouldn’t it be great for people to actually be able to come and get their hands on a bit of equipment in a controlled safe space?”. Out of that, Dig This has been launched.

We have always had the Transport World museum, which we opened up to the public two years ago, and then the motorcycle collection came up for sale in Nelson and we thought it too good to leave New Zealand so we launched Motorcycle Mecca and now with Dig This we have three attractions here in Invercargill.

As a sideline, we have been heavily involved in a project that aims to regenerate Invercargill’s CBD. In fact, that is partly why we put Motorcycle Mecca in the CBD, to be able to drive some foot traffic into it.

The CBD discussion has taken on a life of its own and we have pulled together a joint venture with Invercargill City Council, HWCP Management Limited, which has seen it purchase roughly 90% of a 24,000 square metre block to be redeveloped into a new city heart. We and the council each put in $2m of equity, and the council has also lent it another $3m and HWCP has also borrowed a certain amount from the bank.

Apart from the Reading Cinemas and the Kelvin Hotel and a couple of minor properties, we own everything else on the block which gives us the ability to redevelop it as one central city point, which Invercargill needs.

We have a draft overview of a retail, food and beverage, and entertainment centre on the block, which will also include a covered town square and covered car park. We are having discussions about apartments, an office block, plus other accommodation but it is still a “lego brick” building exercise at the moment as we have only just taken ownership of the block.

The objective was to secure the block because no developer would take the time to pull it together so we have managed that and now we are talking to developers to take it to the next stage.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to develop a whole city block – where else can you do that in a major metropolitan city? And it has a hotel and picture  theatre already in place too. To get the whole project developed will cost circa $100m. That’s not a final figure as it is still early days but we believe it will be in that ballpark.

We believe it will take us around two years to consent and plan the development and sign up tenants so we will not be doing much building in that time. Until we have the tenants signed up we will not know the exact details of the development nor the timetable.

I am not concerned about attracting good retailers to it as a lot of nationwide retailers already want to come here but just cannot find the accommodation they require. They expect to be in a modern complex that complies with the current earthquake code, that has the foot traffic, food and good entertainment options. All we need for our development is a couple of large retailers to help anchor it and then the rest will follow.

We have not got enough quality major hotel space here. In fact, we have not had anything new since 1971. It is time to rejuvenate that. We recently opened a small lodges concept – six two-bed, 5-star offerings. It is niche and it is small volume but it is also high value and it is that high value that we need, as an industry, to be aiming for.

Our focus is to draw good quality tourism to Invercargill. Truth be told, our tourism market is heavily skewed towards the bottom end but New Zealand must become a niche, medium to top end product. It doesn’t matter if it is tourism, or wine or seafood – it has to be aimed at the top half of the market, because there is little value in the bottom half.

What got me going on this was we drove Route 66 in America and we came across a small town called Pontiac that had turned itself into an automotive museum town and it was very cool – so much so that when we hopped out of our car, the town’s mayor was there to greet us.

Well, down here we have SH6 or ‘Route 6’ – one of the most beautiful drives in the world for tourists visiting the region. We are about to start a rental car operation with V8 Mustangs, Fergusons, XR Falcons – all premium vehicles. From a driving holiday point of view, we can attract tourists down here with our attractions and they get to drive ‘Route 6’ in a quality car – that is the sort of value we want to attract here.

Invercargill is a great place to live – a good community, great facilities, no traffic congestion and we are within two hours of everything you would want to see from a tourist’s or a commercial traveller’s point of view.

Here’s the challenge Tourism New Zealand has – for twenty years it has advertised Queenstown and Auckland and now they are full during peak season. It needs to spread visitors to other regions.

The reason we have invested heavily in our three tourism attractions here in Invercargill is they give the city a real point of difference. We are not rushing around saying look at our wonderful lakes and beaches, we have a different selling point.

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