Growth towns in NZ: Cromwell's new boom

by Mike White / 27 February, 2019
Photography by Mike White.

Listen to a computer-assisted audio version of this article if you're on the move:

cromwell nz

Fishing from a jetty at Cromwell’s heritage precinct.

Cromwell has known booms and busts since it was founded by goldminers. Now there’s a new rush going on, with people flocking to the town once again – and Cromwell is struggling to keep up. Mike White reports.

If you turn off the highway and drive through Cromwell, you’ll come across one of the country’s most exotic – and ironic – street names. Neplusultra St is a bit of a mouthful for newcomers, and is derived from the Latin phrase meaning, “no more beyond”. It was the name given by surveyor James McKay in 1875 to mark the new town’s edge, a frontier now mocked by Cromwell’s growth.

Today, the town’s boundary is bulging, its margins expanding as it copes with rapid development. There are new subdivisions at all compass points; new industry; new horticulture ventures planned. It’s growing and groaning, booming but creaking. These are good times for Cromwell in so many ways, but they come with concerns and quandaries. But, as locals will tell you, it was always thus…

heather family cromwell

From left: Rachel, Tanner, Cash, Richard and Kingston Heather. The family moved from Queenstown to Cromwell to find affordable accommodation.

Cromwell was born with a boom, created after Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly discovered gold near the confluence of the Kawarau and Clutha rivers in 1862. When the miners moved on, it became a service town at the junction of several highways, its land used for farming and fruit growing. Another boom occurred in the 1980s with the construction of the Clyde dam, down-river on the Clutha. Cromwell housed most of the workers for the 10 years it took to pour a million cubic metres of concrete and build the country’s largest hydro-electric dam.

But Cromwell’s transformation at that time went far beyond being swamped with single men. The dam formed Lake Dunstan and flooded parts of the old town. Its commercial centre was shifted away from the river, and a completely new CBD built. Nearby, a colossal fruit sculpture was erected – an apple, pear, nectarine and apricot hoisted on giant girders, symbolising the area’s biggest industry, and becoming the town’s much-photographed emblem. Lonely Planet once described it as a “spectacularly ugly giant fruit salad”, but as a local politician responded, “It’s ours, we’ve got it, and we love it.”

For a while after the dam, Cromwell drifted, though the arrival of the wine industry in the 90s provided a valuable fillip, with rabbit-riddled land suddenly prized for pinot noir. 

But even with the glamour of boutique wineries, Cromwell still played third fiddle to Queenstown and Wānaka – the ugly sibling, ignored by tourists.

And it’s still that way to an extent. But as Queenstown and Wānaka have become tourism darlings and been inundated by those prepared to pay a fortune to live in chocolate box surroundings, Cromwell has reaped downstream economic rewards. Those unable to afford a house in Queenstown have looked to Cromwell for real estate sanity. Others have cashed up their tourist town homes and seen their money go much further in Cromwell. Likewise, businesses have found cheaper commercial properties in Cromwell and shifted operations there. Cromwell’s population of around 5000 is predicted to double in the next 30 years.

Read more: Inside the close-knit community that lives along the Cromwell-Tarras RdClyde: Where the heart is

Richard and Rachel Heather are part of the exodus from Queenstown. Looking for somewhere bigger as their family expanded, they found the cheapest rentals for three-bedroom houses in Queenstown were between $550 and $650 a week, but there was virtually nothing available. So in July 2015 they moved to Cromwell and rented a house for $310.

A year later, desperate to get on the housing ladder, the couple bought the cheapest house they could find in Cromwell, for $315,000. “I get paid reasonably well,” says Richard, “but it’s still cheaper to have a mortgage in Cromwell than rent in Queenstown.”

Two years later, their house is now worth about $450,000. But it’s cold, and Rachel swears they won’t spend another winter in it, so they are looking at buying a section to build on.

Richard has continued working for an engineering firm near Queenstown, able to afford the commute because his company pays for the petrol. And he’s not the only one living in Cromwell and working in Queenstown. “I can be in a line of 50 cars coming from Cromwell in the morning, and I’d recognise 40 of them.”

He leaves home at 7am and gets back at 6pm, the commute adding 45 minutes each way to his working day. “But I’m doing an average speed of probably 80kmh. People in Auckland or wherever drive for an hour and do 10kmh. I’m moving the whole time, so you don’t notice it.”

Ultimately, the couple would like to live in Wānaka or back near Queenstown, but with three young boys, they realise Cromwell’s relative affordability is a means to that end at the moment. They note Cromwell’s shopping isn’t great, the schools are crowded, and there aren’t many indoor activities for kids during winter.

“But it happened to Queenstown, too,” says Rachel. “You get a massive influx of people coming to live there but the infrastructure’s not supporting them. But, like Queenstown has now, Cromwell will eventually catch up.”

greg wilkinson

Greg Wilkinson has seen Cromwell become a destination in its own right.

“We’ve got growing pains, here in Cromwell,” accepts Greg Wilkinson. The 52-year-old moved here more than 20 years ago and is now a sales manager for Mt Difficulty, one of the region’s premier wineries.

He’s chair of the local college board; sits on the Central Lakes Trust, which distributes funds to community groups; is involved with Lions; established the Cromwell Business Network, which holds monthly breakfast meetings to build relationships; and set up a running group that meets at 6am, three times a week, even in icy winter.

Like the Heathers, Wilkinson and wife Vivienne bought the cheapest house available when they arrived in Cromwell, paying $83,000 for a tatty cottage in 1996. With many more people moving to Cromwell in the past decade, demand for houses has increased dramatically and pushed up prices, with Wilkinson’s old house now worth more than $400,000.

The real problem, says Wilkinson, is that wages simply haven’t kept up with house inflation. When he bought the cottage, Wilkinson was working in an orchard earning just over minimum wage at $10 an hour. Now, someone employed in an orchard or vineyard for a similar wage at today’s rates, around $18 an hour, simply isn’t able to afford a house – even in Cromwell, Wilkinson says. Thus, some are being forced down-river past Alexandra, or east towards the Maniototo, to find reasonably priced housing.

The problem extends to rental accommodation, with workers coming to Cromwell for jobs in the horticulture, vineyard, hospitality and industrial sectors struggling to find somewhere to live. The asking price for a three-bedroom house is around $500 a week, Wilkinson says.

There are numerous subdivisions planned or in progress around Cromwell, and Wilkinson estimates 2000 new sections could come onto the market in the next few years. A holiday park is being turned into residential sections. A wine company is ripping out vines to build houses. And developers have plans for 900 sections to Cromwell’s west in a controversial proposal that Wilkinson labels “residential battery farming” because of the small plot sizes.

Signs of recent growth are obvious – a second supermarket, a new sports store, more liquor outlets, a second pharmacy, another gym, a new retirement village. Cromwell College, the only local high school, is also under pressure as the population expands. “We’re growing by about one classroom a year,” says Wilkinson. “We’re bursting at the seams.”

A colleague from nearby Alexandra used to disparagingly describe Cromwell as being “on the road to everywhere”, meaning it was never a destination. But Wilkinson says that’s changed, and Cromwell has wineries, a historic area beside the Kawarau River, and Lake Dunstan – a fantastic recreational resource for residents and tourists. In addition, it’s perfectly positioned at the hub of several major highways, acting as a gateway for distribution throughout Central Otago and the Queenstown Lakes area.

However, one of the town’s major problems is its CBD – an inward-facing mall built in 1985 when the main town was relocated due to Lake Dunstan’s creation. The mall is largely concealed from the road, and visitors would be excused for not knowing it existed. Locals bemoan it being a dead zone, particularly lifeless at night, and often travel to big shopping centres in Queenstown. Despite upgrades to the mall, “it’s battling to survive”, admits Wilkinson.

luke win

Business owner Luke Win says careful planning is needed so the town doesn’t become Queenstown’s housing estate.

Its future is part of a major public consultation process that has just been undertaken by the Central Otago District Council, in response to the town’s rapid growth. The Cromwell Masterplan aims to make decisions for the next 30 years and is trying to gauge the level of change the community wants. It’s not been easy, with community bickering and friction and political power plays. But most residents realise the town is growing and changing, and sensible planning is desperately needed.

Luke Win stresses the need for long-term thinking, not knee-jerk decisions or the ad hoc development that’s occurred in the past. The 34-year-old part-owns R&R Hiab Services, which operates specialist lifting equipment as well as running freight trucks. Win and wife Rebecca came here in 2005, but when the GFC hit and the economy stalled, he realised he couldn’t get ahead or get a house by driving trucks for a wage. So the couple headed to Western Australia in 2010, and Win drove road trains, carting iron ore from the desert to Port Hedland. After a year, he’d saved enough to put a deposit on a house just out of Cromwell. When he returned to Cromwell in 2015, he was financially secure and able to go into business.

But his Australian experience gave Win more than money in the bank – it showed him what can happen to boom towns. When he was living in Port Hedland, rents were more than $2000 a week and houses cost well over a million dollars. But when the minerals industry tanked, those houses were suddenly selling for just a few hundred thousand. So Win knows Cromwell’s current buoyancy can easily change, as it has in the past.

“We’ve got to really get a hold on this growth and concentrate on the things we need, and listen to everyone involved in the community. Because if we’re just going to become Queenstown’s housing estate to solve their problems, then that’s not what we want to do.”

Win says Cromwell needs more land set aside for commercial developments to attract businesses and retailers. This would encourage Cromwell’s own economy, rather than it relying on Queenstown and Wānaka, and mean fewer people commuting there for work; there also needs to be constructive discussion about the mall rather than simply moaning, he says. Win, whose son Lochie has just started school, suggests a childcare centre be included to draw families to the town centre. Where housing developments are situated also needs to be carefully considered, and Win warns against subdividing existing sections into small units that leave no room for kids to play.

“This region is growing and we can’t stop that. But what we need to do is somewhat control it, in the right way, so in 40 years, when our children are running the show, they can look back and go, ‘Our parents and grandparents did a blimmin’ good job setting this up for us.’”

richard and jolanda foale

Richard and Jolanda Foale brought their helicopter business to Cromwell.

When Richard and Jolanda Foale shifted to Cromwell in 2014, people told them they were mad. They owned a helicopter tourism business in New Plymouth but, on a trip to Queenstown for a conference, were amazed at how many more tourists there were in the south. On the long drive home, Richard mulled over the opportunities that might give them, and before long they’d shifted their business, Heliview Flights, to Central Otago. But rather than compete with successful helicopter companies in Queenstown and Wānaka, they located themselves in Cromwell. They now take tourists to the spectacular mountaintops around the area, and drop in at some of the region’s best wineries.

The Foales knew nobody when they arrived, but the locals welcomed them, and they’ve since built a successful business. Central Otago attracts people who can cope with a challenge, Jolanda says, as it has done since the days of the goldminers. “If you haven’t got the right set of qualities, you fail and move again. But everybody’s got that positive energy about them, all hands on, let’s make it work, and it all buzzes and moves forward together.”

Tourist numbers are growing as international visitors discover Central Otago (presently, only 4% of money spent in Cromwell comes from overseas tourists), and attractions like Highlands Motorsport Park, and the proposed cycleway connecting Queenstown and Clyde via Cromwell, would see this continue. This, in turn, brings permanent residents into the area to work.

Jolanda’s parents are examples of this, having shifted from Switzerland to Cromwell two years ago, and both have jobs in the tourism and hospitality sectors.

Richard says many Cromwell residents don’t realise how lucky they are. The climate is dry, summers are hot, and they often go swimming or kayaking, with barbecues by the lake after work.

“It’s definitely upped our quality of life,” says Jolanda.

Up the road towards Wānaka, Amanda Carnie steps out of her house and takes in the view down to the Clutha River, up to Lake Hāwea, and across to the St Bathans and Dunstan ranges. “Not too shabby, is it?” she smiles.

She runs her business consulting company, LTS Group, from here, in a house she and husband Charlie built two years ago. Much of her time is spent away, working with big companies and government departments in the cities. But all you need is to be within an hour of a decent airport and to have decent broadband when you’re home, and it doesn’t really matter where you live, Carnie says. That was the logic that brought them from Canterbury to Cromwell in 2007, and has seen them stay, and now shift to an even more remote spot.

Their neighbours are a real league of nations, Carnie says, coming from across the globe to settle here – including one who works for Google and commutes to San Francisco.

“We’re all here for the same reason – for the lifestyle, to escape the rat race. Because it’s so different from the corporate life, being in central Wellington, for example. It’s a bit like the best of both worlds. We can go up and get our city fix, we stay at lovely hotels and do the restaurants and orchestra and theatre and it’s great. And then we come back here and we just have this peace and tranquillity and the view, and it’s as far from the other life as you can realistically be, without trotting off to Nepal.

“It’s just good for the soul,” she says. “When things are stressful or challenging, you just come home here and it puts things into perspective.”

cromwell subdivision

One of Cromwell’s new subdivisions.

Fast facts on Cromwell

Distance from: Queenstown 60km, 50 minutes; Wānaka 54km, 40 minutes; Alexandra 30km, 20 minutes.

Population: 4143 (2013 census) but now estimated to be around 5000. Predicted to double within 30 years.

Median home value: $618,650

Median weekly rent: $400

Average annual rates: $2419

Medical facilities: There are three GP practices in Cromwell, and Dunstan Hospital in Clyde is 25km away.

Schools: Two primary schools and one secondary school.

Climate: Cromwell is New Zealand’s most inland settlement, with hot summers and cold winters. It gets around 2000 hours of sunshine each year, and is very dry, with only 400mm of rain, on average.

Broadband: High-speed fibre is available in most of Cromwell.

Water/environment: All water is chlorinated. Water treatment is being upgraded to comply with New Zealand drinking water standards. Cromwell’s wastewater plant is also being upgraded.

Recreation: Cromwell has numerous parks, and access to Lake Dunstan at many points. Close to the town centre there is an indoor swimming pool, extensive sports fields, netball and tennis courts, and an all-weather hockey turf. There is a skate park, fishing in the lake and rivers, and cycle trails around the lake’s edge. Four ski fields can be reached in just over an hour.

This article was first published in the February 2019 issue of North & South.

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