Around the country, depressed rural towns are trying to reinvent themselves. Once-scorned Featherston is leading the charge. But prosperity comes with a price.
Bill Ferguson called in his building crew in spite of the damp. The white shroud masking the Remutaka Hill is thinning and there's too much work to ignore a dry forecast. They need to stand up the roof trusses on the house frame - the second home to go up in this Featherston subdivision.
Ferguson is 68 and a bit deaf, but this is no time to retire. In 20 years of building, he's the busiest he's ever been. He surveys the overgrown lots around him, with their "Sold" signs proudly pinned to the fence. There's already a house at number 1, its deck still glowing the amber glow of fresh stain - its owners reportedly moved back here from Australia. The other seven lots encircling the asphalt tongue of McKerrow Pl have sold mostly to young families from over the hill in Wellington and the Hutt Valley. One is a spec property - an investor hoping to make a quick buck. The thought would have been laughable even five years ago, Ferguson says.
A couple of years ago you couldn't give a house away in Featherston.
Fran Scott pulls up in her zippy Professionals-branded car. She used to manage rentals, now she sells homes. Two years ago you could buy a solid 1960s home for $180,000-$200,000. Now you're looking at over $300,000. Of the rentals she used to manage, 90 per cent have been snapped up by first home buyers.
"We couldn't have imagined that three years ago. There were houses sitting on the market for three or four years, not getting an offer."
Scott's phone trills twice but she ignores it, before returning to the office. Fifteen minutes later she's back, with sold sign and cordless drill in hand. The missed calls were confirmation on the front lot that was under contract. It's a great day to be a real estate agent.
Turn right at the entry to the dead-end street and the town just stops: an old villa with a rusty roof, then endless green paddocks. This used to be a dead-end town in every direction, burdened with a reputation for horrible murders, drugs and dilapidated buildings breathing the sour smell of stagnation onto the main street.
"Money will change this town", says Mary, tootling idly down a side street on her mint green bike. It already is. She moved from Wellington five years ago for a healthier lifestyle - she'd managed a bar for 10 years and wanted to work when everyone else was working, to sleep when everyone else was sleeping. Houses were cheap, but the price of moving was high - she missed the shopping; the clothes; the culture.
"I cried for the first two years. I cried every time someone came over from Wellington. I begged them to take me home...When I first came I called it Freaktown. I hated it."
Now the sheen of renewed prosperity is everywhere. The 6.36pm train from Wellington spills its cargo of commuters with their laptop bags and hipster headphones. They file out of the station carpark, a lonely BMW among the sensible Toyota and Honda hatchbacks. Back to the homes they could never afford in the city; the new cafes with their slick black and white paint jobs and on-trend food; the cheesemonger's smoked goat gouda and stinky stilton, which wouldn't be out of place in Auckland, or Melbourne. Back to their steampunk, craft beer, artsy little town.
But not everyone is ecstatic. Prosperity doesn't carry everyone with it.
"Yay! Soon we won't have any affordable housing any more!" one commenter noted on Featherston's Facebook page, reacting to a post about rising housing demand. "Economic growth! Thanks to tourists and rich film moguls! Yay!"
n old timer kicks off his Red Band gumboots at the door to the Pioneer Bakery on the main street, and joins the lunch-time stream re-emerging with brown paper bags.
Thickshakes, fried chicken and split lamingtons oozing whipped cream - this is standard provincial New Zealand tucker. Some things in this town probably haven't changed in 50 years. But 150m up the road, past the new SuperValue supermarket, another bakery is selling progress. Handmade sourdough and chocolate brioches; the pastel coloured crunch of specialty macarons.
Featherston is a town in flux, and the clash of cultures is everywhere. Totem homewares sells $220 wooden coat racks and $80 ceramic mosaic balls. At the opshop next door, there's table football for $15, or a sunflower yellow hoodie printed with 'Oh yes'.
escVelocity art cafe on Fox St has Wellington-grade coffee and a new exhibition by edgy artist Andrew de Boer. In the lime green Fonterra warehouse opposite you can buy 25kg of stock feed for $16.99.
And at the foot of the Remutaka Hill, Wits End sells crystals and witchcraft supplies. "No war has ever been fought in the name of Wicca" claims a bumper sticker, next to the bamboo broomstick and "1080 kills everything" sign.
State Highway Two cuts a line straight through Featherston, a constant window on the town's bleak days of crumbling buildings - and its sudden rejuvenation. Like many rural services towns that have lost their dairy factory, their meatworks, their main employers, the South Wairarapa settlement is looking to reinvent itself, as a funky commuter outpost and Booktown, that might once again live up to the 1897 Cyclopaedia of New Zealand's assessment of it.
"If possible, the tourist should stay a few days in Featherston. The hotels are good, and the lake is well worth a visit," the authors concluded. The roads were suitable for cycling, the bush-clad hills afforded charming views, and the area elicited a pleasant feeling of rest.
Nothing is more emblematic of the town's transformation than the newly renovated and reopened Royal Hotel
ating back to 1868, the hotel's recent fortunes roughly mirror that of the town.
Grand renovation plans faltered and for years its tired facade spoke of stalled hope. That changed when, in December, owners Janelle Harrington and Rob Allen opened the door to a steampunk themed boutique hotel and restaurant, with intricate timepieces bought at antique auctions, bell jars of oddities placed like museum displays and black and white tiled bathrooms with snaking copper pipes.
Harrington and Allen were among an earlier wave of Featherston immigrants, having 10 years earlier bought a wedding venue 20 minutes out of town. They were still living and working in Wellington, but wanted a lifestyle change.
Like many who have driven Featherston's rejuvenation, they have a creative eye. Harrington mentions the morning mist - "Very Vincent Ward". Booksellers New Zealand boss Lincoln Gould owns a military bookshop and spearheaded the town's inclusion in the global Booktown movement, which includes an annual event and embraces the town's five booksellers.
Other creative residents include advertising guru and Book Council chairman Peter Biggs, cellist Kate Mead and writer Joy Cowley. American film mogul James Cameron owns a lilac warehouse on the main street, which serves as an organic vege distribution centre.
When Harrington and Allen asked BNZ for a loan to buy the Royal and fund $500,000 of renovations, the bank was reluctant. A boutique hotel in Featherston? Not likely.
Kiwibank disagreed. They looked at the couple's business plan - their demographic data showing the changing face of Featherston. They looked at the drawcards of the cycleway over the old Remutaka Incline where the railway ran before they cut the tunnel in 1955; the unique Fell engine that used to puff its way up that hill, and which now draws trainspotters from around the world; the old Japanese prisoner of war camp that attracts military buffs. And they said yes.
We felt that Featherston was definitely a place that was on the up.
"We've been here for 10 years and we have watched it grow. We have watched new shops arriving and we have watched the demographic change quite a bit. We also knew that there had been a massive increase in tourism to Wairarapa from international destinations."
Not everyone was an instant convert, however. The couple added ribs and Tui beer to the menu to keep the locals happy, alongside their escabeche marinated hare and craft beer.
There's plenty of Tui flowing at The Empire, across town, next to the station. Monday night is quiz night and the commuters roll in straight off the train from Wellington. But today is a Wednesday afternoon and there's only a gaggle of old men hovering over jugs of beer. It feels like the kind of saloon that once existed on the main street, where farmers would play billiards while their horses were shod. A couple of punters are practising for the pool tournament, but judging by the blackboard draw Bruce already has that sewn up.
There's nothing hip, arty or progressive about this crowd. The old blokes don't want to talk, except to ask me "Do you go off?" Helpfully clarifying, when I stared uncomprehendingly - "You know, at night."
Ray Woods is celebrating his 79th birthday with a jug of Tui. He's pleased townies are moving in from Wellington and beyond.
"We need more people over here - to live here so they pay more rates. Then they might put our rates down. I'm thinking of my own pocket."
There are a hell of a lot of good people in Featherston, but there aren't enough jobs, Woods says.
What we really need is something more for our young people. More work.
Mike Beckett moved to Featherston in 1939 and has seen its transformation from thriving rural services town to a commuter and tourist outpost.
ike Beckett remembers when there was more work than workers in this town. He settles into the couch in the bungalow he shares with his wife and budgie, with its tapestry firescreen and photos of the grandkids.
The 81-year-old came to Featherston with his family in 1939, when it was a thriving rural services town. His dad ran a grocery store - at one stage the town had four of them. Now there's only the SuperValue, and a couple of dairies.
There were five garages; a saddler; a blacksmith; a Chinese fruiterer. You couldn't buy sugar or flour without ration coupons and his Dad had to explain what chocolate was when Beckett found some display blocks in the shop. But there was no crime and no unemployment and school leavers stuck around, getting work locally.
"There were two or three factories that made clothes, there was a big rubber factory, which employed most of the people in the town. There was a big dairy factory out there. Now the milk is just taken away in tankers. So that's all gone. And they were the ones the people in the town worked for. Now they have to commute."
Batavian Rubber still exists, but is now an importing business employing 9 people, down from 220 in its heyday of making rubber gloves and balloons 24 hours a day. In those days the idea of Featherston as a commuter town would have been ludicrous - in the 1940s the average motorist travelled just 50km a month and fewer than one in four families owned a car.
iz Mellish moved to Featherston almost 50 years ago from Carterton, following a boy. She worked at ANZ - one of the town's four banks. Only a Kiwibank remains.
The 67-year-old traces Featherston's decline back to 1987, when the stock market crash, Rogernomics and the amalgamation of South Wairarapa's three councils created a perfect storm of change.
Masterton's Waingawa freezing works closed in 1989, taking with it 700 jobs, followed by the dairy company closure. The council focused its attention on the nascent wine industry in Martinborough, which people forget had such a bad "Wild West" reputation Mellish was banned from going there as a young woman.
"By the middle of the 90s, the picture was a very dramatic change. People moved out. They had to move out to get work - it's really that simple. So banks withdrew. There was little encouragement for business or opportunities really, in the town. It was dramatic, and it was pretty awful really."
Employment left town, drug dealers moved in, emboldened by a "horrendous" police policy that seemed happy to leave small dealers alone in the hope they'd lead them to someone further up the food chain, Mellish says. That ended in the noose continually poised over Featherston's head - the 2003 P-fuelled murder of 6-year-old Coral-Ellen Burrows.
"What they didn't take into account was the absolute devastating effect that would have on the community. That was really terrible and culminated in the death of that young girl Coral. But the whole town was well aware that drug dealing was alive and well, and not discouraged."
ike many depressed rural towns, the decline showed in Featherston's public face - its main street.
Buildings fell into disrepair. There are still vestiges of decay in the six buildings owned by Upper Hutt man John Broeren. Locals call them Broeren's Ruins. An old drifter sits with his dog on the balcony of the two-storey tan building on Fitzherbert St. Fairy lights can't mask the dereliction, and the faded Lions '05 tour jersey in the adjoining red train carriage speaks of a decade of lack of love.
The decline showed, too, in the statistics: the lowest incomes in the region, unemployment of over 10 per cent, a falling population. As late as 2013, 44 per cent of Featherston residents had an annual income of $20,000 or less.
People power changed this town, says Mellish. Volunteers banded together to push for progress, first under the banner of Wake Up Featherston, with pink-sprayed beds placed around town. Then came the 1999 slogan "Try Featherston, it will blow you away". But progress was reluctant. For all the locals' fierce defence of their town, houses languished on the market for years at a time. Few wanted to move to Featherston. That is, until a few funky businesses started popping up, and the national housing crisis prompted a steady trickle of new blood from over the hill. Suddenly, Featherston was making headlines for the region's fastest growing house prices.
pposite Mike Beckett's place a renovated 2-bedroom 1940s home on an 809sqm section just sold for $325,000, double its July 2014 sale price. And over the fence, the neighbouring house sold in April 2017, to the Cosfords, who moved in from Wellington.
They were renting in Whitby for $450 a week, now they own a four-bedroom home and pay less than that on the mortgage, rates and insurance combined. Blair commutes to his Wellington bank job - it's no worse than the drive from Whitby. Sophie is a stay-at-home mum to 3½-year-old George and the new baby. The 33-year-old's parents are from here - she went to school in Masterton and admits she was pretty vocal about never coming back.
But as George rides his bike across the flat lawn to the pumpkin patch, and potters in his dedicated playroom, it's easy to see the attraction. They could never have afforded to buy in Wellington, especially not with this kind of space. Yes they worried about the town's reputation, but they've seen no trouble. And Sophie worried about the distance from a hospital, but has had amazing medical care.
"When you think of Featherston, you don't immediately think family-friendly, or a great place to raise a young family. That's probably been the biggest surprise for me. It's got an amazing community of young mums staying at home or working raising their families."
There's no Kmart, and you have to create your own winter fun, but the Cosfords only have one real regret about the move - "that we didn't do it sooner".
We feel like this has probably been the happiest thing we could have done as a family.
Sophie Cosford moved from Wellington with partner Blair and Son George in April 2017, and regrets not doing it earlier.
Blair Cosford is one of about 210 commuters who take the train to work every day from Featherston station.
ports team photos line the Featherston School corridor: the 1944 seven-a-side rugby team is glaringly white. In the playground outside, it's a different scene. A blond ponytail swings between Asian and Māori girls.
When principal Gina Smith started here in 2015, they had just three teachers and a dwindling roll of 52 pupils, with two unused classrooms due for demolition. Now they have five teachers and 102 pupils, and she hopes to hit 110 by the end of the year.
Smith had been eyeing up the job while junior dean at Kuranui College in Greytown, where she saw the town's reputation played out in its kids.
it's just what we do in Feathy
"One of the things I hated was that a lot of them walked in with their heads bowed already. And when you spoke to them it was 'Oh, yeah, no miss, it's just what we do in Feathy'...The way we think here is we want our kids to be proud of who they are and where they come from...So being from Featherston is something to be really proud of. I think that's starting."
In the past four years, the community has been buoyed by new arrivals, an artisan injection and hard work by locals such as Anglican youth worker Alan Maxwell, who gets young people out of mischief and into sports and mechanics courses. Police also hat-tip Maxwell, crediting him with a significant drop in youth crime.
"It's moving forward - it's catching up," Smith says. "There's restaurants here now. There's three places you can get a coffee from - before there was probably one if you were lucky...The place is starting to thrive."
But there's a cost to prosperity - greed. Rents used to be $200-$250 a week and renters could be choosy. Now landlords are cashing in on soaring house prices, selling rentals to newcomers, or boosting rents astronomically.
"Now, we're looking at rents up to $450 a week, which is only $50-100 cheaper than Wellington, which is ridiculous. We've got families that are living in caravans. We've got families that are living in one-bedroom bedsits. So for them, it's really hard. We've lost families, because they can't find places to live."
Community organisation Trust House runs the Wairarapa's 485 social houses, of which about 10 are in Featherston. Chief executive Allan Pollard has never seen demand like it, with 99.7 per cent occupancy and a waiting list of 50 families from all walks of life.
While traditionally the trust has housed lower income tenants who might have been evicted by other landlords, now there are young families priced out of rentals, who can't raise the cash for a house deposit. People are living with family or friends, or looking elsewhere.
So where do they go? "That's the $64,000 question for the whole of New Zealand," Pollard says. He wants to knock down 20 houses to build another 100, but it requires $20 million from the Government. He's still waiting for an answer.
South Wairarapa constable Richie Day thinks the exiles are shifting to Masterton, or outside Wairarapa. Others mention Pahiatua and Eketāhuna. No-one knows for sure.
Not everyone laments the prospect of renters being pushed out. Outside the Menz Shed, former Community Board chairman Garry Thomas reckons the rental shortage is a good thing, with young families replacing the "riff raff".
Day says there are still drugs here, as in every town. A recent sweep, Operation Frozen, netted 12 drug dealers in Featherston and Martinborough - mostly P. But users aren't just riff raff: "I was quite shocked by some people," Day says.
rystal Miller was one of the lucky ones, getting in before the rental squeeze. The mother of seven twists a rollie between finger and thumb in the doorway to the home where she lives with her partner, who works as an arborist. One-year-old Pounamu perches beside a pair of Red Bands.
Miller, 31, was born and bred here but couldn't wait to get out. "I didn't really appreciate what we had around us - the community."
They were living in Ōtaki but wanted a bigger house. Family, space and the transformation of Featherston brought them home. What will Featherston look like in another decade? Miller laughs. "Hopefully with a McDonald’s."
"A lot of people travel out of town for work. That's what is exciting - it's changing... I don't like them buying all our houses, but they bring their money here."
And money is changing this town.