When writer Warwick Roger pulled out of Geraldine after spending a week there in 1998, he made a big call. “Geraldine,” he later wrote, “remains perhaps the most pleasant small town in New Zealand.”
At a time when other provincial towns were watching residents and services disappear, Geraldine was hanging in there, hanging on to the services at the core of a healthy town: the schools, the banks, the doctors, the police station and so on.
Roger did a rough inventory of the town: two butchers; three banks; a garden centre; a supermarket; a couple of hairdressers; a Chinese restaurant; several cafes; two real estate agencies; two pharmacies; two stock and station agencies; an RSA; a medical centre.
Today, that list reads like this: one butcher; four banks; a garden centre; a much-expanded supermarket open from 7am to 8pm; four hairdressers; two Chinese restaurants; half a dozen cafes; four real estate agencies; one pharmacy; one stock and station agency; an RSA; three GPs, with a very busy medical centre which several new families join each week.
The high school roll that was 515 in 1998, with 53 year 13 students, now sits at 552, with 69 students in their final year.
The cinema that used to show movies on Wednesdays and weekends now has nightly screenings. There’s a skate park but no obvious graffiti; a river walk but precious little litter. There are four public toilets. Scattered around town are park benches donated by the Geraldine Garden Circle, the Geraldine Alpine Garden Group, the Geraldine and District Lioness Club. There are mature oaks, and wood pigeons watching passers-by. They have a farmers’ market every Saturday in summer, a winter lights festival, a Future Living festival. They have a Christmas parade with 60 floats. They still have an old-fashioned menswear shop – Peter Young Apparel. In a town of 2300 (up three per cent in the past decade) there is still a fish shop, two Indian take-aways, three money machines and four art galleries. Four art galleries in a rural town that takes two minutes to drive through.
Carolyn McAtamney owns one of them, upstairs in the old post office building. When she leased it, the place had been empty for 10 years and the roof leaked. Now she sells top New Zealand artworks to locals and tourists from Sydney, London and New York, defying the doubters who thought Geraldine was a hick town devoted to farming – devoid of culture.
“It’s a great wee town. It’s passionate, it’s arty, lots of fashion, new shops starting all the time, lots of cafes.”
McAtamney grew up here, went overseas, was an opera singer, came back and had kids. “My heart is in the hills and that’s why I’m still here. It’s a lifestyle. It’s beautiful, it’s a safe town – we’re lucky.”
Dave “Grumpy” Moss used to own a Fiordland motor lodge, but when he sold it, he started scouting round for somewhere else. “We’d come through here for a cup of tea and a pee on our way to Christchurch. An ice cream at the dairy and the playground for the kids – that was my lot with Geraldine.”
But, cashed up, he bought a holiday park on Geraldine’s outskirts 10 years ago and says since then the town has taken off. “It’s a vibrant town; to be honest with you, it’s healthy. And why it succeeds is because of its community base. I’m no bloody socialist, but I can assure you, this town has got very, very good genes of community care. No question.”
Moss remembers seeing some graffiti out on SH1 near the Rangitata tearooms years ago. On the sign that pointed to Geraldine, some disillusioned youth had added the word “sucks”.
However, underneath, someone else had written, “But not a bad little place.” It might not have been much of a town slogan, but Moss reckoned it showed people cared enough to redress the spraypainted slander.
“I’m not a townie. Never have been, not about to be. And we’re never going to be a Queenstown – we’re a different market, we’d destroy ourselves. But when you go down the street at seven o’clock at night and you find the restaurants full, that’s what it’s about. When you go to the takeaway and have to wait an hour – that’s great. When it’s really busy, everybody’s making a dollar.”
Moss, the chairman of local business group Go Geraldine, says there’s no luck in the town’s success. “You make your own luck. Geraldine is more of a forward-thinking town. There’s not often you’ll find a pessimist in this town and, by Christ, I’ve found plenty going through the country at different times. And I think that’s the difference – it’s attitude. I’ve driven all through New Zealand, many times, and the towns that are successful are the ones with attitude.”
But attitude will only get you so far – you can find plenty of towns around the country that are staunch but stuffed.
Geraldine’s continuing success has several economic legs to it. The farming industry that’s always been its base is still there, though most land has gone to dairy, cows pushing up to the open-road signs on the town’s edges. Moreover, Fonterra’s huge Clandeboye dairy factory near Temuka is a big employer of townsfolk. So too is Barker’s, the jam and chutney makers, where about 150 locals work.
Then there’s tourism. While not many see Geraldine as a destination in itself, it’s on the way from Christchurch to Tekapo, Mt Cook or Queenstown. It’s a popular stop for lunch or coffee, and up to 20 buses a day pause here en route south, filling cafes and sustaining tourist shops. But even with all those things going for it, it would have been easy for Geraldine to drift and decline. Timaru is 36km away, Ashburton 50km, Christchurch less than two hours’ drive. People gravitate to bigger centres if they can’t get what they want easily.
Geraldine locals realised that years ago. When buses stopped servicing the town, they got together and set up a community bus service. Now they have five vans and a car that do school runs, take people to hospital in Timaru, drop people at the airport, and are hired out for social events. All the drivers are volunteers, all the fees modest.
There’s a Friends of Geraldine group that welcomes newcomers with coffee groups and social activities. There are planter boxes with vegetables around town for people to help themselves to – part of the town’s Incredible Edible project. People talk about the pleasure of the slower pace of life and easy access to nearby bush and mountains.
When Audre Ramsay was interviewed in 1998, she had three real estate agencies. Now she has six throughout the region. She’s lived here for 40 years, sold houses for 30, sold around 2500 in and around Geraldine in that time. In 1998, she said you could get a good three-bedroom house in town for $120,000. Now you’d pay $350,000. There’s not a lot on the market under $200,000, and a brand-new place with two bathrooms and double garage costs around $500,000. It’s a lot more than you’d pay in many other small towns, and more expensive than in Timaru – a sign of the continuing demand to live here.
But still, if you cashed up your Grey Lynn villa and headed south, there’s a place on the market for $1 million with 15ha, a seven-bedroom, five-bathroom homestead, and a small lake. Alternatively, Ramsay says for that money she could sell you a really nice new house and a couple of rentals.
The market has benefited from people leaving Christchurch in the earthquake aftermath. And there’s always been strong demand from retirees, with a new “lifestyle village” selling well. But there are also lots of younger people, some shifting here for the rural life, others returning after stints overseas.
Sven Johnson is one of them, having grown up here, gone away for 10 years and then come home. “It tends to happen quite a lot in Geraldine. Quite a few people I went to school with headed overseas and came back to raise their children. It’s a great place. Super-low crime, you can walk or ride anywhere, really good schools.”
Now 41, with two children, Johnson says he and American wife Sarah made a very conscious decision to return to Geraldine for the lifestyle it offered. The couple own a company teaching straw bale-house construction – a good example of how easy it is to run a business from a small centre.
Of the people interviewed for Roger's 1998 story, some are still doing the same job, many have retired, a few have died, and others shifted elsewhere. But for everyone who’s gone, there are others who’ve arrived, the gentle nature, provincial charm and pleasant air of Geraldine drawing them in.
Words and photos by: Mike White
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