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Once-sleepy Cromwell the rising star of the south

The building boom in Queenstown and Wanaka is having a downstream effect on the once-sleepy town of Cromwell

It's 7am and the road between Cromwell and Queenstown is buzzing. The twin cab utes of tradesman jostle with the rental cars and buses.

A few days ago, an accident on the road created a major traffic jam and a lot of tradies ended up late for work. This would have been unheard of a few years ago.

The building boom in Queenstown and Wanaka is having a downstream effect.

Cromwell, which is 45 minutes away and equidistant from both the big tourist centres, is the fastest-growing small town in the country.

Cromwell expanded quickly in the early 80s as workers arrived to build the nearby Clyde dam and power station.

When Lake Dunstan was filled and the turbines switched on, Cromwell went back to being the sleepy little town that serviced the surrounding orchards.

Today, the lake, the weather and Cromwell’s proximity to Queenstown are big assets for the once-struggling town.

Its population has shot up from around 2500 to nearly 5000 in the space of a few years.

“It’s enjoying incredible growth,” says Central Otago Mayor, Tim Cadogan.

“Air BnB means Queenstown landlords can get four times more than what they used to get from a longer-term rental. So, lots of people are now priced out of that market and are looking to live in Cromwell and commute the 45 minutes to work. “

The real estate business in Cromwell is now big business.

“When I started in the mid 80s I was the only real estate agent in Cromwell,” says Alister Stuart “Now there are 30 agents and six companies “

Stuart’s boss at Harcourts, John Petre, says “At the peak of the last cycle in 2008 our lowest number of listings was 77. Currently we are down to 55. Things are really tight “

House prices in Cromwell have increased by 35 percent in the last three years and section prices are rising at an even faster rate.

“A section that sold for $99,000 in 2015 now sells for about $230,000.” says Petre.

Harcourts alone has sold 83 sections in the last eight months.

The median house price is around $530,000.

The town has formed a club to make the new arrivals feel welcome – The Cromwell newcomers club.

“It would’ve been a fairly lonely club a few years ago” according to Cadogan.

In another sign of growth and confidence in Cromwell’s future, local investors have got together to build a 92unit retirement village.

But it is not just the Central Otago building boom that is powering Cromwell’s growth.

Exports of cherries are turning once battling orchardists into millionaires.

 New Zealand cherry exports to China have skyrocketed. Photo: Supplied

When New Zealand signed a free trade agreement with China, cherries became Cromwell’s new gold rush.

Marie Dempster, CEO of Summerfruit NZ which represents the interests of 300 fruit growers says, “China is what we call a pull market, we don’t have to push for sales, China will take what we can deliver.”

In 2011, NZ exported 35,000 kilograms of cherries to China. By 2016, those exports had skyrocketed to 972,000 kilograms.

Tim Jones, the head of Cromwell’s biggest cherry grower and packer, 45 South, says China has gone from “zero to hero in five years”.

Cromwell has benefitted hugely from new techniques which allow growers to plant up to 1500 trees per hectare instead of the previous norm of 666 trees.

According to Jones, Cromwell is the best place in New Zealand to grow cherries and the returns are attracting new growers.

“We are as far away from the sea as you can get in New Zealand so we have dry hot summers and cold winters. We are protected from the Westerly weather by the mountain ranges.“

Cromwell’s past is also giving it an unexpected advantage. The area is crisscrossed by old water races used in the gold mining days.

“The orchardists own the old mining rights so they have access to water which in the old days would have been used to sluice for gold.”

Bright as things are already, they could be about to get even better for Central Otago towns like Cromwell.

Local and central government have just agreed on a $26m package to extend the now famous Central Otago rail trail.

226km of cycle way will be added to the existing 150km and will link Queenstown, Wanaka, Cromwell and Clyde. Eventually it will run all the way to Lawrence in South Otago.

Cadogan says the existing rail trail is “… like a vein of gold that runs through the region and we won’t know what has hit us when the new tracks go in. I think they will be hugely popular. “

"The good thing is that it is a five year roll out and we can keep pace with bringing on infrastructure like accommodation.”

The rapidly expanding population is putting pressure on Cromwell’s facilities but most people in the town believe it can cope.

Principal of Goldfields Primary School Sharon Booth says the town’s two primary schools are each taking 40 to 50 new entrants a year. “That’s a lot of little people in a little town. “

She says the school roles are growing at the rate of 15 percent a year and are regularly having to add new buildings.

“We are lucky we have the space and our forward planning has been good. Currently we are negotiating further expansion with the Ministry.”

Many small rural towns have trouble attracting teachers but this is not an issue for Cromwell.

“Don’t forget, this is a very desirable place to live. We had four come from Auckland last year – they love it.”

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