Small towns work on surviving

By Alana Christensen

Are our regional towns getting smaller? Or are they simply changing?

The issue is one that came to a head in December when Stanhope residents expressed their concerns about the town’s sole butcher retiring.

According to Regional Australia Institute research, between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, more than half of all regional local government areas experienced a population decrease.

The Stanhope butcher’s business was offered for sale at $130000 including the freehold, but until recently there had been no takers.

Stanhope and District Development Committee secretary Bob Holschier has put out a call for a new butcher and said the butcher shop was not closing due to lack of business, with a loyal customer base and several commercial customers, including a supermarket and cafe.

The owner has simply decided to retire.

The town of about 800 people has lost a number of businesses in recent years and the main street — Birdwood Ave — has more shops empty than occupied.

Census data showed Stanhope had a population of 1014 in 2006, a figure that has decreased about two per cent per year, dropping to 828 in 2016.

The loss of a key local shop is a familiar story for Rhonda and Bill Davis who own and run Merrigum’s local store and cafe.

After owning the property for two decades, they ultimately took over running the store following the departure of the previous managers.

‘‘A lot of the locals have come back in (to the store),’’ Mr Davis said.

‘‘When the season is on and the caravan park is full people will come in and get their milk or their chicken and chips.

‘‘If the town hadn’t have supported it, it would probably have been shut down and knocked over.’’

The town of Merrigum has seen growth in recent years — the 2016 census put its population at 418 people, up three per cent since 2011 — yet Mr Davis said some people did not even know where the town was.

With regional towns facing a number of challenges, Campaspe Shire Mayor Adrian Weston said communities had been changing due to a number of factors.

‘‘Some of them have been impacted by water policy and what’s been recovered under the (Murray-Darling) basin plan,’’ he said.

‘‘Right across the region, although our populations are remaining somewhat stagnant, the age profile has gotten older. We’re seeing more young adults leave for the city to go to university or work.’’

Although communities were changing, Cr Weston said there were examples of communities that had done well to ‘‘reinvent themselves’’.

‘‘In the last year or 18 months we moved to a more community-based model off the back of the closure of the Murray Goulburn factory in Rochester, and one of those short-term goals was the silo art which has seen a lot more people stop and come through town and spend a dollar or two,’’ he said.

‘‘There are some great examples of communities that have been able to reinvent themselves. Girgarre is a good example of that. They’ve been very good at managing their community.’’

Although the population of Girgarre has decreased — from 593 in 2011 to 561 in 2016 — the town recently opened Gargaroo Botanic Gardens as part of The Girgarre Revival project.

With towns such as Stanhope and Girgarre drawing large-scale investment from dairy processors Fonterra and Australian Consolidated Milk, Cr Weston said they were often the towns’ biggest employers.

Yet, he said, as was the case with Fonterra’s Stanhope factory, a number of the employees commuted from nearby regional centres.

A spokeswoman for Fonterra, Stanhope’s main employer, said since a catastrophic plant fire in 2014 the company had committed to rebuilding its presence and was set to double production next year.

‘‘Fonterra have invested somewhere near a quarter of a billion dollars in the community — so that’s a pretty big show of confidence in the future of the town. But, on the other hand, all other things being equal, things are still going to impact the community,’’ Cr Weston said.

— with Myles Peterson