This was the first headline used on the front page of the first edition of the Manning Community News. June 2015

There was concern for the future of Wingham, businesses struggling, a lack of imagination and progress.

Hello? Here we are four years down the track. What’s changed?

It seems ever since Wingham Council was forced to amalgamate with Taree, Wingham has been overlooked.  And the former Greater Taree City Council area has suffered since it was forced to amalgamate with Great Lakes in 2016.  So the fortunes of Wingham have little changed, and now we are getting worried. 

Businesses are closing, the main street looks rundown, it never even ranked a mention in the new Barrington Coast (gawd, help us!) tourist publication “Coast.”  The riverside park looks messy, thanks to the campers and community misfits who ignore the pathetic little council notice about overnight stays only, and happily camp for sometimes weeks, trashing into the Brush for firewood and to pee and poo, leaving a lot of mess for locals to clean up.  The Wingham Advancement Group have caused this place to go backwards rather than forwards.  

The world acclaimed restoration of the Brush from the 1980’s, is being undermined with kids hanging out doing drug deals, shambolic and destructive “trimming” by the electricity company along with attempts at tree poisoning (to get rid of the protected and endangered flying foxes it is suspected).

There is a fear that MidCoast Council is still planning to ignore the majority of the Wingham community and build the monstrous bridge over Cedar Party Creek and destroy Wingham’s ambiance and swimming pool.  Where is the action group on that idea? 

The Labor Party did promise $100,000 to revamp the Bowling Club to be a central social place where locals can walk for a good feed and a convivial drink, plus money to build a modest new bridge through the Bowlo’s carpark and fix up the pool. There was a further four hundred grand promised to refurbish the main street as many buildings look ready to be condemned.  None of this will now eventuate. 

Wingham needs a movie company to come to town and design and upgrade all the facades of the shops as a heritage town! 

Disgruntled Businesses

A recent stroll and chat survey resulted in the following (no one wanted their names or businesses mentioned which is really disturbing).

Many feel that the “cement box of a medical centre” should never have been allowed in the main street.  And now we have murals breaking out on walls and shops.  Who chose the artists and paid for them?  Who agreed to cows and cartoons?  It’s bad enough we have to live with the Bedpan Waterfall no-one asked for.  Is Wingham a blank canvas for any person who thinks they’re an artist to roll up and just dabble away on walls and buildings?  They’re not ugly but they mean little and don’t fit in with our place as an historical town.   Nor do they measure up to a standard set by the silo artists around the country, for example, which have become a massive tourist attraction.  And let’s not start on the dreary falling apart planter boxes in the main street with dying mulberry trees in them. We gave thirty thousand dollars to Sydney consultants for this? (They gave us back ten grand as they must have felt sorry for us.)  Who plants a big mulberry tree (which stains passers-by plus the sidewalk) in a small wooden box?   Some shop owners wanted to plant geraniums to replace the dead plants, but “weren’t allowed.” Nor was the lady who ran the florist shop (now closed) allowed to make and maintain, for a very modest cost, beautiful hanging baskets of seasonal flowers along the main street.  

No Pay Fees No Get Visit

Many local businesses have complained they are simply ignored by the Chamber of Commerce. Especially if they aren’t members.  One business owner complained that when the Vintage Car show was arriving into town, the Head of the Chamber rushed in on the Friday before and insisted he had to stay open for it.  He had no idea this major event was coming to town as did another business who ran out of food, with so many customers they were run off their feet.  If they had known, they would even have put on extra staff as well as ordering in more supplies.  There was also confusion with the recent Scottish Festival.  ‘Where were all the posters and signage, and details about it this year?’ a business person wanted to know.

One can ask why businesses don’t join the Chamber of Commerce and fight to promote the town and come up with new ideas?  Several business operators simply laughed at this question.  ‘They don’t listen,’ said one.

A quick check online of members of the Chamber of Commerce shows few businesses actually located in Wingham.  Especially the main street.  The Vice President of the Chamber has no shopfront in Wingham. 

Several businesses complained that it’s not worth the money it costs to join the Chamber, as they rarely have any useful ideas, are unhelpful, and never come into your shop for a chat or ask how they can help.  There is a feeling that the Chamber isn’t there for the local businesses despite the current Head of the Chamber, Liz Jarvis, sitting on numerous civic and council committees.  

We contacted Ms Jarvis, who was keen to tell us all they are doing for Wingham, mentioning how pleased she is that the “Historic Markers” were up.  These are little signs saying when a building was erected with a bit of its history.  Good idea, however wouldn’t it also be a good idea to make sure the heritage buildings of Wingham are protected?  Several businesses told me they didn’t know about the markers until they were stuck on their buildings and one complained the information on it was incorrect.

Others complain there’s not enough parking available for customers as the business owners and staff all park in the main street.  What happened to the idea where staff and owners parked  behind the main street? They used to show little signs in the window telling us they were thinking of their customers and have parked behind their business. 

Heritage losses

The loss of the classic Emporium at the top of Isabella Street, and the sole remaining Cobb & Co heritage stables in NSW, attached to the Australia Hotel (lost in a mysterious fire) which were pulled down unnecessarily, are irreplaceable losses.  (Rather like the trees at the Bight Cemetery.  And what happened to the trees in the Main Street?) 

A couple of charred poles at the Stables were examined by a heritage architect from Sydney who said they were solid as rock, but Council pulled the lot down anyway.  The chainsaws went in at dawn.  I will never forget seeing the adult son of the family who once owned the Australia Hotel, and where he grew up, in tears, pleading with the demolishers to at least let him have a piece of the wood to keep as a memento.  They ignored him.

Wingham is branded as our “Heritage Town”, but soon it maybe the Lost Town if we don’t step in and get an organised think tank to do things properly;  People with imagination, vision, nouse and knowhow. People who work as a team, not just for themselves and their business, but for the town.  

Joan Frare who ran “Memories” café in Tinonee had a constant stream of regulars and tourists who did “the loop” spending a day driving around the area from Forster, Tinonee, Taree, Wingham, up to Ellenborough or Comboyne, shopping eating, drinking, sightseeing.  She now points out that with nothing in Tinonee now other than the Museum, people don’t bother to stop.  Mondrook Café is for sale and opens only periodically for bus groups, Artisans no longer has a café, and there are complaints not enough places open regularly on weekends in Wingham.  

We spoke to Wolfgang Zichy who was the “frontman” running the original Bank Guesthouse when it first opened in Wingham in 2001.  He also ran “Bowers” which was jam packed with cars lining the road when the carpark was full most weekends.  Wolfgang and his partner moved away to pursue other opportunities, as they say, after several years.  He says he had to be proactive, running events, serving up the best food possible, winning awards from Rotary, tourism operators, magazines and newspapers.  They held Doctor’s dinners, special events, fire drill extravaganzas, all booking out. And everyone got involved as a community whether they had a business or not. 

Community Meetings

We are aware Council is having meetings for their Community Plan for every town and village, though if the Wingham meeting was anything to go by, there was not much achieved and few attended.  Certainly no great ideas emerged.  

While Council is running around holding these community get togethers, the few ideas floated so far seem to be tokenism at best, superficial and cosmetic. It’s good and important to have a plan and to co-ordinate activities but where will the money come from? Particularly if you have 20 plans but are haemorrhaging money through Masters, The Forster Precinct, The IT debacle, just for starters. 

We sent Liz Jarvis as head of the Wingham Chamber of Commerce, a series of hard questions. (Well some didn’t seem too hard… i.e. How many members do you have?)  She said she would have to ask her committee and we heard nothing back. 

However there has suddenly erupted a sadly amusing series of fluff media stories where well known identities have popped up from whatever bubble they inhabit to remark how “Wingham Is More Vibrant Than Ever”.   These are good people who have done a lot for the community, but truly, just saying everything is lovely isn’t helping all the struggling businesses and the lacklustre appearance of a town where doors are slamming with Business Closed No longer Operating signs, in a town that could be stunning if cleverly marketed. 

After two weeks we asked again if Ms Jarvis had a comment for this article, so she sent a terse statement that the questions were negative and not helpful.  And I was to use her whole response or not at all.  As there was nothing specific in her response, I will abide by her request not to print it. 

Yes, businesses do open and close for many reasons. (Duh?) But while they are open it is helpful to be part of a co-operative and cohesive community all working for the same end – to promote the town as a whole and therefore, their businesses as part of the whole town.   

People might have good intentions but should realise that if they want to be on committees where they have access to decision makers, where they claim to be a spokesperson for community groups, or even as representatives of the community, then they must also be accountable to the community for their results, or lack thereof. 

Work Together

We’ve had enough hobnobbing without any real progress, outcomes or results. The crisis Wingham is now facing, (and also Taree where many businesses have closed) can be addressed, but it will take a pro-active, friendly, smart group of co-operative doers who care enough to get things happening.  When a new business starts up facing difficulties (as in the case of a recent business in Wingham which faced struggles from every direction and is now afraid even to talk about it) or a new neighbour moves in and objects causing the business to close (as was the case with the Tinonee Terrace Theatre), Council and committees should be supportive and helpful, not immediately go on the attack. 

At the moment it appears at least half a dozen businesses are closing their doors in Wingham. 

It’s going to take a lot more than murals and markers to get this special heritage town on its feet.


PS. For a good laugh read the June issue of Forster/Tuncurry Focus Magazine. The  Wingham Chamber of Commerce Vice President, Kev Ellis extolling the soaring delights of booming “vibrant” Wingham!!

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