Living the dream: Australia’s regional revival is real

By Greg Bearup

In July last year Prue Swain and her husband Andrew bought a big, unloved building down a laneway in the NSW regional city of Orange. It had been the city’s St Vincent de Paul shop and warehouse. The entrepreneurial couple, aged in their mid-30s and with three young kids, had spotted an opening. Over the years they’d noticed the demographic of Orange was changing. The old iron-clad rule of the bush used to be that the best and brightest kids would move to the city and then you’d only ever see them again at Christmas and funerals, or when their proud ­parents published their worldly achievements in the local paper. But in Orange the dynamic had shifted. Young professional couples were moving from Sydney to Orange in droves and many were setting up their own businesses or working remotely.

Prue is a vivacious, well-connected woman, a country kid who grew up on a farm in Warren, on the vast plains a few hours north-west of Orange. She went to boarding school in Sydney and lived for a time in the city’s east before ­moving to Orange in 2009 to be with her now husband, Andrew, an electrician with his own business. Many of the young couples who moved to Orange from Sydney would find their way to Prue. If you needed a trustworthy plumber, advice on schools or ideas about where to hold a wedding, “Prue will know”. One of the common complaints from these city folk was that there was very little good office space in Orange and they found working from home a bit isolating.

At the urging of potential tenants, Prue and Andrew went out on a limb. They bought the old Vinnies building last year for $1.3m. “It was an absolute dump,” she says. They gutted the joint and were on the tools throughout Christmas, working furiously to transform it into a stylish and modern shared workspace. It was a ballsy and expensive undertaking, a new concept for Orange. The Hive has 11 permanent offices upstairs with desks for more than 35 people – plus a couple of dozen hot desks downstairs, along with conference and meeting rooms, a communal kitchen and mingling areas. The venture was an instant hit. Early in March they had a “soft opening”; the tenants flooded in and the upstairs section was almost full. They all mingled well and the vibe was fantastic. “This is actually going to work,” Prue thought.

And then, at the end of that very first week, the Covid lockdown was announced. Prue watched as all her hopes and dreams trudged out the door. “I remember standing at the bottom of the stairs and seeing Holly, one of the tenants, walking down with a pot plant under her arm,” she says, bursting into tears recalling this event. “I said, ‘Please. Please don’t take that f..king pot plant… I’ll water it for you. You’ll be back soon.”

And as it turned out, she was right. Prue put her mortgage on hold and the tenants were given a rent holiday. After six weeks, many began ­drifting back, and new tenants emerged. “There were literally 10 others waiting to take a spot.”

And so, while many parts of the country were plunged into a pandemic-induced recession, Orange went into overdrive. It was already cruising along nicely before Covid, and then when the restrictions were lifted in NSW there was a huge influx of tourists eager to gorge on all the city and its surrounds has to offer. The result is an economic boom the likes of which it has probably not seen since the great gold rush of 1851.

“It’s been like the perfect economic storm,” says Orange City Council general manager David Waddell. The city has a diverse economy and the sectors are all firing. “It is incredible to witness.” The number of visitors to the region has risen from 1.1m in 2017 to estimated 1.8m this year – that’s an additional 13,500 tourists every week. There have been so many people through the revolving door at the Orange tourist information centre that it wore out and had to be replaced.

All of the city’s chickens have come home to roost and they’re laying golden eggs. There’s a solid base of 700 permanent public servants working at the Department of Primary Industry, which was relocated to Orange from Sydney a couple of ­decades ago. It is home to the region’s best and ­biggest hospital, which opened in 2011, and it has a new mental health hospital; these facilities have enticed 145 specialist doctors to work and live in Orange. In the 10 years to June 2019, the population grew by almost 5000 to 41,000, and the council says it has exploded since – it’s roared past the once dominant regional centres of Bathurst and Dubbo in population and prestige and is said to be the ­fastest-growing country town in NSW.

The REA Group says that in the past three months, unit prices in Orange have jumped by a whopping 30 per cent and house prices by six per cent. The Central West has seen the largest increase of any region in Australia for views per listing in the past six months, an increase of 93 per cent. Real estate agents told me they are not bothering to advertise units or cheaper houses as they have lists of first home buyers and investors eager to snap up anything that comes onto the market.

The wine industry, which began in the district only 30 years ago, has more than 60 vineyards producing fine cool climate wines. The wider rural sector too is booming following the drought. The city’s cafes and restaurants are chic and packed to capacity – we had trouble getting in anywhere on a Tuesday night. There are wine and whisky bars, gin distilleries and a couple of boutique breweries, and restaurants and bars with the energy and edge of Sydney’s Surry Hills or Melbourne’s Collingwood. Locals complain they have to book to get a table at places they’ve walked into for years. The city has good schools, a ­university campus, a regional art gallery, cinemas, a theatre. “We also have the second-­largest ­underground gold mine in the southern hemisphere,” Waddell says of the Cadia mine, 20km south of the city. Its owner, Newcrest, says Cadia has 1400 full-time equivalent staff. The mine is undergoing an expansion that will make it productive for at least the next 35 years.

The things that have made Orange an ­attractive tourist destination have also made it an attractive place to live, not only for retirees but particularly for young people who bring new ideas and a vibrancy that fuels more growth. “To get people to move from the city firstly you need jobs,” says Waddell. “And then you need to ­overcome FOMO – fear of missing out.” He says it might be a fear of limited career advancement, or a decent coffee or good schools. Orange’s ­success, he says, has been to allay many of those fears. “People come here and see the art gallery, the bars, the cafes, the conservatorium… they know we have great hospitals, they see people thriving and succeeding.” And it’s only about three and a half hours’ drive to Sydney.

The clincher is when they compare real estate prices and realise they can afford a house with a pool. Prices in Orange have risen steeply but they are still a fraction of those in the city. The median sale price for a house, according the REA, is now $445,000, and $285,000 for a unit. According to the Regional Australia Institute, it takes one person on the average wage in Orange 23 years to pay off an average-priced house in the city. In Sydney’s Woollahra Council area, where Prue Swain had lived, an average wage earner can expect to have their eastern suburbs house paid off in 82 years.

Governments of all stripes have long trumpeted moving people out into the regions, a process ­hastened by Covid and the rise of remote working. But the key to attracting city folk, as both tourists and residents, is creating towns and cities that have swagger. The sort of place that can entice the kids who grew up in the district to come back after they’ve had a stint in Melbourne or Munich. Orange has transformed itself into that place. Like an unremarkable kid who suddenly became cool towards the end of high school, Orange has an X-factor and every other daggy town in regional Australia is desperate to join the gang.

Overseas travel restrictions have given regional Australia a unique opportunity. Generations of Australians have grown up on cheap Asian ­holidays and are more familiar with Colombo than Quilpie. Meanwhile, retirees can ­rattle off towns and villages they’ve visited on cruises down the Danube, but the Darling is not so familiar. Covid has forced them to take a stroll through Australia’s back paddocks for the first time and many of them like what they see. And, in this time of untethered workplaces, it may entice some of them to wave goodbye to city life.

Some well-travelled friends of mine, an ­Australian woman with a Pommy husband, recently returned from a jaunt to far western NSW – to Broken Hill, Wilcannia and the underground opal mining town of White Cliffs. They loved it. “It was just so different,” he says. “The landscapes, the people, the wildlife… it was like travelling abroad and we didn’t have to leave the state.” She says that being denied overseas travel has made her appreciate her own country. “When you travel overseas you are looking for differences in culture, difference in architecture and food… you approach it with a sense of excitement and wonder, which I did this time in my own country… languidly exploring.”

Before the pandemic, Australians spent $67 billion a year on overseas holidays, ­compared to the $47 billion foreign tourists spent here. Dr Zac Gross, an economist from Monash ­University, says people are likely to cut back on their holiday spending during the recession but there is still a lot of money left over for domestic travel.

But it’s not a matter of swapping like for like. Local tourists will not simply take up the slack where the foreign tourists left off. There will be losers. Cairns, for instance, is hurting badly, as is anywhere else that is heavily reliant on international tourism. Tasmania, too, has been suffering because it had been reliant on the mainland.

Dr Kim Houghton, an economist with the Regional Australia Institute, says places within a few hours’ drive of capital cities are doing well. In Western Australia, for example, towns south of Perth from Margaret River to Albany “are faring very well”. Cabin-feverish Victorians are expected to flood much of the state as restrictions are lifted there. Regional areas within a few hours’ drive of Adelaide are pumping, as is much of South-East Queensland including the Granite Belt wine region around Stanthorpe.

The Outback, too, is experiencing a spike as people tick off some of those destinations they’ve always dreamt of getting to. Business is booming in Charleville, 750km west of Brisbane, according to Danielle Lancaster, manager of the town’s visitor information centre. There’s been a big shift in demographics with more young ­couples staying in the motels, rather than just grey nomads arriving in caravans. “In October there were times when we had 100 per cent occupancy in the pubs and motels, which is pretty unheard of as we enter the hot season,” Lancaster says. The town has been working hard in recent years to broaden its attractions. It is building 22km of walking and driving tracks through a botanic reserve. It has an observatory to view the incredible Outback sky. It has the Charleville Bilby Experience, a local breeding program where you can see the endangered ­species up close. You can get a good coffee and a decent meal. “We are trying to turn a one-night stay into two or three nights,” she says. “We’re hoping some of these people will come back next year.”

The regions are attempting to use Covid as a way of repositioning themselves to Australian consumers. Bundaberg, four hours’ drive north of Brisbane, used to be known for sugarcane and Bundaberg Rum; now it is selling itself as a foodie destination, as well as a stepping-off point for the Southern Barrier Reef and a place to see the annual turtle nesting. “We’ve been thriving since June,” says Bundaberg Tourism’s Katherine Reid. “All our restaurants have been pumping.” People from South-East Queensland thought they knew Bundaberg as the country town up the road. “What they are discovering is we have some beautiful restaurants that are focused on showcasing local produce on the plate,” she says. “They are discovering a different side of Bundaberg.”

But will all those Brisbanites still make the four-hour drive north this time next year if inter­national borders are open? It depends, says Kim Houghton, “on people’s satisfaction levels. Did they have the great experience they were looking for? Did it live up to their expectations? What was the service like?” Australians have become used to good accommodation, good service, good food and value for money. Will Bundaberg, or Charleville, or Albany, have what it takes to compete with Bali? Has Orange found the secret?

In the late 1980s Philip Shaw, then chief ­winemaker for Rosemount Estate in the NSW Hunter Valley, was on the hunt for some land to set up his own vineyard. He wanted to make wines similar to those from the Burgundy region of France. One day he was in a light aircraft and a storm forced the pilot to divert its course; it flew over Orange. Shaw was impressed with the hilly, basalt country he saw below. He later referenced the countryside on his contour maps and found it was the same altitude as his favourite vineyards in Burgundy, between 850m and 900m. It took him a year to convince a farmer to sell him the land he wanted and he bought his first paddock in 1988, when there were only two other vineyards in the district. The arrival of a celebrated winemaker would lead to a slosh of vignerons descending upon Orange. At around the same time chef Michael Manners opened the famed Selkirks ­restaurant (since closed), described as “one of the state’s greatest dining experiences” by Good Food Guide in 2005. Orange was off and running as a food and grog destination.

“It’s an interesting place,” says Shaw, as we sip wine one afternoon at his Hoosegg Winery (his two sons have taken over his original Philip Shaw Wines). “The economy here is just so incredibly strong and resilient.” By way of example he says that after 70 years of manufacturing in Orange, the Electrolux whitegoods factory closed in 2016 and 300 people lost their jobs. That would decimate many other towns. “But when Electrolux closed we didn’t miss a beat,” he says of the local economy. “We didn’t even notice.”

Shaw says a collaborative entrepreneurial ethos exits in Orange; success for one is success for all. It’s an ethos that encourages people to be bold and take risks. People like Pip Brett, 37, who bought the old Masonic Lodge and set up a fancy homeware shop called Sonic. It’s the sort of shop you’d expect to find in Noosa or Toorak but it’s thriving in the NSW Central West. “I feel bad ­saying that Covid’s been good for us, but it’s been very good,” Brett says. “Business has doubled.” Much of that growth has been driven by internet sales but there’s also more foot traffic through the store. “Every week day is now like a weekend and every weekend is like a long weekend.” She’s employed three additional staff to cope with the increased demand.

People are staying for longer, Brett says, and ­seeing things at a more relaxed pace, “learning to slow down”. Young people used to come for the weekend and now they are arriving on a Thursday night and staying until Sunday. “You see people in here with their laptops, working away, while their partners are shopping.” Brett, who has two children, grew up in Orange and then went to fashion school in Sydney before returning home in her 20s to set up her first clothing store. “I look at my brother, who has three kids and lives in Sydney; he’s a lawyer and his wife works as well,” she says. “His life is just so chaotic. The logistics of life are just so much easier here.”

There’s a sense of optimism in Orange – it’s like a burgeoning frontier town where if you have a good idea and are prepared to work hard there are fortunes to be made. No one epitomises this spirit more than 36-year-old Sammy Jeon, who arrived 11 years ago as a backpacker. His first job was labouring in the vineyards. He now owns four ­successful restaurants – three in Orange and one in Mudgee – and is about to open another in what was Kylie Kwong’s famous eatery, Billy Kwong, in Sydney’s Potts Point. It will be called Diana, after Philip Shaw’s ex-wife. “Diana was very good to me when I first arrived,” he says. “She introduced me to food and wine and encouraged me in business.”

Jeon’s first foray into business was selling sushi in the farmers’ markets. “The culture in Orange is very different to other towns,” he says. “I think that having a lot of young people move from ­Sydney, it is very important.” Other country towns just don’t have an influx and so they don’t have the same vibrant culture. “Frankly, it’s much less bogan than other towns.” Since Covid, his restaurants are booming. His main ­restaurant in Orange, Mr Lim, has two sittings – both are usually booked out seven nights a week.

The success of people like Sammy Jeon has encouraged others to take the leap. Sarah ­Crowley, 28, was born in Orange but left when she turned 18: “You couldn’t get me out of here quick enough.” She started working in venue management for the Merivale group in Sydney and moved on to Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar and Grill, where she met her partner, Dom Aboud, 27, who was a junior chef at the revered eatery. A friend told her about an opportunity to set up a restaurant in the grand old Union Bank building in Orange. Aboud told his boss, the head chef at ­Rockpool, that he’d been offered an opportunity in Orange. “He said, ‘Take it with both hands and go for it’,” Aboud says. “It’s not every day you get the opportunity to run your own kitchen.”

Crowley says that within a week of the first approach “we’d signed a contract and we hadn’t even seen the venue”. They moved in last year, Aboud bringing a sous-chef along with him. Business at the Union Bank is now booming; Aboud is ­gaining invaluable experience running his own kitchen while Crowley is general manager. They were open six months when Covid hit and there were some nervous moments. “We’d just bought a house and we’d lost our jobs… we managed to scrape by with JobKeeper.” Then “business just skyrocketed… it’s been massive.” On weekends now they are serving more than 300 meals a day.

But more than that, they are loving the move. Aboud has taken up golf, and plays regularly with a young crew from the hospitality industry. Last year they bought a four-bedroom brick ­Federation house “on a huge block” in the centre of town. “Working in hospitality in Sydney, we’d never have been able to afford our own home,” she says. Aboud was ­worried about finding qualified staff but says the willingness of people to have a go and to learn makes up for their inexperience. “I had two guys in the kitchen who had never used fresh basil before,” he says. “Fair dinkum! Now I’ve got them making pesto without ’em looking at the recipe cards and it’s spot on. It’s great to be part of that, to teach them.”

Glenn Mickle, Orange City Council’s tourism manager, first moved to the city as a photographer on the Central Western Daily in 1988, back when Orange “was a lovely little town with lovely buildings and scenery, but it was very insulated and not at all outward-looking”. The city’s current good fortune, he says, may seem like an overnight ­Covid-driven success but it has been 30 years in the making. And the ability to attract young ­people has been at the heart of it, he says. “They’ve brought creativity and ideas and energy into the community. You can feel the buzz.”

On the night of Halloween, in the Orange ­Showground, a group known as Orange Open Air held their first screening, a family-friendly showing of the old Disney hit Hocus Pocus. Open Air bought a projector and screen and over the ­summer it plans to show outdoor movies around the town and in the vineyards. The concept has been driven by a group of young women aged in their 30s; one had moved to Orange from ­Copenhagen, another from the US. “As I said,” says Mickle, “the young people who’ve moved here have incredible drive and energy.”

People come to Orange to experience “the dream”, says Dave Waddell, the council’s general manager. It’s the small vineyard where you can chat with the winemaker; it’s lunch in the little ­restaurant with the up-and-coming chef, followed by an afternoon bushwalk. “It is freedom to breathe and freedom to move… The big danger is that we will stuff the joint [full] and people won’t come back.” Orange needs to remain a place where ­people come by the carload, not the coachload. “We have to fight hard to preserve the dream.”


As state borders open, regions are bouncing back

It’s the year of school prawns on white bread and potato scallops wrapped in newspaper. With international borders shut and state borders reopening, Australians are returning to the comforting familiarity of the holidays of their youth. Sarongs are out, thongs are in. After a turgid, discombobulating year we’re itching to load up the station wagon and hit the road, and maybe even stop for a Paddle Pop at the Big Banana.

Following a long, tough incarceration, Victorians are especially keen to break out. Sofie Batten, from Visit Victoria, says the old family holiday destinations are in greatest demand, especially along the coast. “If you are looking for a decent week or two over Christmas and haven’t already booked, it is going to be very challenging almost anywhere in Victoria,” she says. Most popular are the old favourites – Gippsland, Mornington Peninsula, Daylesford, Bright, everywhere along the Great Ocean Road. Phillip Island is heaving. Even before restrictions were fully lifted, Hall’s Gap in the Grampians recorded “one of its biggest days ever”. Parts of the Murray River, however, are still suffering due to uncertainty about when the river will be accessible to Melburnians.

Natasha Marr, CEO of Australia’s North West Tourism, says the pandemic has been a “tale of two bookends” for the Kimberley, with Broome at one end and Kununurra at the other. “Once the internal borders opened up, Broome went gangbusters,” Marr says. “Unfortunately, they all stopped here and didn’t go anywhere else.” Kununurra and the rest of the East Kimberley suffered as people flew in from Perth to Broome for their Covid relief but didn’t leave the coast. However, with state borders opening up, Marr reckons there will be a flood of Australians from “over east” heading for the wilds of the Kimberley.

Tasmania’s tourism sector has suffered from a complete absence of international and mainland tourists, but it has allowed the locals to get back to what life was like before their island was invaded. A Tourism Tasmania spokeswoman says the east coast, from Coles Bay to Bicheno and up to St Helens, has been in vogue with Tasmanians taking extended breaks. “The other one that is a bit surprising has been Stanley,” she says of the old colonial town on the island’s remote north-west tip. Its 170-year-old pub, the Ship Inn, which has been restored with lively storyboards telling the hotel’s history, has proved a popular long-weekend getaway. Other must-go places for Tasmanians are King and Flinders Islands; during the pandemic the first-ever direct flights from Hobart were launched to both islands.

Adelaide hopes the lifting of interstate travel restrictions will lift numbers and a spokeswoman for the SA Tourism Commission says many regional areas have been doing well. “Port Lincoln is massive,” she says. “People are flying over there to do shark diving, fishing charters and then over to Coffin Bay for the oysters. They’ve got some very cool wineries and a couple of great new hotels, which are all fully booked.” The Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills are ticking along nicely and “during the school holidays it was the Flinders Ranges. Wilpena Pound was so busy it wasn’t funny.” In Queensland, the Outback is in bloom and places within a couple of hours’ drive of Brisbane, such as the Granite Belt wine country around Stanthorpe, are in clover.

But there’s no sugarcoating things in the Northern Territory: domestic and international visitors for the June quarter in 2020 were down 75 per cent on the previous year, says Tourism NT’s Tony Quarmby. Summer is usually quiet but this year there’s been an aggressive NT Summer Sale campaign. “One major hotel in Darwin has reported it will reopen around two months earlier than originally planned,” Quarmby says. Like the green shoots after a bushfire, the recovery has begun.

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