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Business Cope in Auckland Blackout

March 8, 1998

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) _ For 118 years, New Zealand’s shoppers have relied on the city’s premier department store, Smith and Caughey, for quality clothing, carpets, and even three-course meals in its restaurant.

It took the inner city’s power supply crisis to shatter the carefully-nurtured record of complete reliability that Smith and Caughey had built for over a century.

The power blackout forced store doors shut for a full week after the power failed Feb. 20.

``We’ve never had to close before in our history,″ executive director William Caughey said. ``Maybe in the World War II years Saturday morning was cut out, but our hours have never been truncated like this.″

With city power company Mercury Energy now supplying electricity for only half of each day, the store has halted its elevators and escalators, shut off half its cash registers, supplied staff with mobile phones and must ``sometimes almost grope in the dark″ to stay open, he said.

The restaurant remains closed and Smith and Caughey’s sales have dropped by 50 percent.

Smith and Caughey is the flagship upscale store on Queen Street, the blacked-out heart of Auckland’s downtown business district, where power has been out or unreliable since the last of four electric cables failed.

Caughey, doyen of the family-owned firm, said even with its own standby generator running, the store is losing a day and a half of business each week.

``It’s a city disaster. But we’ve just got to make the most of it and adapt to the conditions.″

It’s a story echoed by stores, restaurants and bars throughout the center of the city, even though about half the power supply has been reinstated by emergency generators rushed in over the last two weeks.

``The city is unsettled by this whole thing,″ said Caughey. ``Routines have changed, people are confused (that) they’ve been told to stay out of the city center.″

When the crisis broke out, the city council told businesses and shoppers to avoid downtown so that the small amount of emergency power still left wouldn’t be drained.

On Sunday, 40 Mercury Energy workers began digging 11 holes to put up the first of 110 utility poles to carry a new emergency cable downtown, which should restore power in five to 10 weeks.

In the Downtown Mall, manager of The Warehouse store Bruce Lett was closed nine days before emergency generators were hooked in.

``It’s been a shocking two weeks″ he said. ``We’re really hurting.″

The uncertainty over the power supply is evident everywhere, as merchants seek assurances which Mercury Energy says it cannot give.

Cavill White Securities chief executive Dr. Don Turkington said Sunday the blackout crisis has severely dented the image of both Auckland and New Zealand.

``Our bubble of credibility has well and truly burst,″ he said. ``The world has sensed that something’s wrong. This will hurt us for a very, very long time to come.″

He expressed surprise about the apparent lack of anger among the 8,000 central city business owners, 2,000 of whom mayor Les Mills told AP were ``fighting for their lives at present in central Auckland.″

``They should be marching in the streets,″ said Turkington.

At least 400 suffering downtown businesses plan to band together this week in a lawsuit against Mercury Energy.

Merchants, politicians, even cabbies shy away from admitting that the crisis has changed shopping, working and even dining habits in the hub of the country’s most important commercial district.

But a Saturday or Sunday on the streets shows pedestrian numbers down 80 percent and more, little traffic despite the lure of free and readily available inner-city parking, and mall Muzak ringing through empty plazas which just three weeks ago hummed with activity.

Fast food chain McDonalds has closed five of its nine outlets in the center city, and had all its stores closed for a week at the start of the crisis.

Freezers of food were shipped out to other outlets, staff sent to work in those outlets or put on leave.

``It’s a big loss and only our hired emergency generator is saving it from being worse,″ said Queen Street McDonalds shift manager Misili Siulepa. Mid-city is ``real quiet,″ he added.

Retailers are planning a two-month ``fight-back″ campaign to relaunch the center city as a shopping mecca, with the City Council helping promote the program.

Some already have sale signs out advertising ``Blackout Specials.″

As Auckland enters Day 17 of the crisis Monday, nobody from the power utility, the city, business or the national government can yet offer any certainty about when full power will be restored the city’s heart.

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