-----In 2004 we bought a falling-down house and 30 acres. This blog documents our progress-----

Friday, June 27, 2008

Age article: "Watch this Place"

I've just discovered this newspaper article from 18 months ago. I can't believe it took me this long to stumble over! It's a feature article on Talbot from The Age from back in January 2007.

Here's the link to the original article, but I've copied it in full because it's actually no longer accessible to view online unless you pay a hefty fee. *sigh*

Watch this place
Published in The Age, 23rd January 2007

An astronomer, merchant banker, and IT engineer are among a band of skilled newcomers who have joined dedicated long-time residents to put Talbot, aka Back Creek, back on the map, writes Genevieve Barlow.

WALK down the main street of Talbot any week day and you might not see a soul.

Not so long ago a visitor might have thought the heart of this tiny once-upon-a-time mining town in the guts of hard old gold country, 60 kilometres north of Ballarat, had stopped beating.

Few visitors turned off the main road from Maryborough that bypasses Talbot.

Weekender Daniel McDonald recalls that Talbot was "a pretty horrible place" when he ventured there five years ago. "It was rundown. The pub sold just two types of beer, heavy or light, and then it closed down."

Now, come farmers' market day - the third Sunday of the month - vacant parking spots in town are as rare as gold nuggets. The pub has reopened, there's a cafe, a restaurant, three bed and breakfasts, a bookshop and, soon, more shops.

And on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, locals - including a fascinating coterie of business people, artists, tradies, farmers and others - sit under the veranda of the community-owned and leased Quince Farm Cafe in Scandinavian Crescent (the main drag) making out like they won the lottery or something. Which, if you're into quiet living in a town filled with human curios, old buildings and character-plus, they have.

Here in the place formerly known as Back Creek, proclaimed amid a rush of gold seekers as Talbot in 1862 and which then faded with time, a most peculiar and enchanting series of things has happened.

It's had a heart-starter.

Since the monthly farmers' markets began almost three years ago, annual visitor numbers are up to 40,000 - about 2500 who come to every market and the curious who visit at other times. This is according to local municipal councillor Chris Meddows-Taylor, 54, a former BHP Billiton executive and change management specialist who moved there from Melbourne five years ago.

There is plenty to be curious about. Like what brings a major overseas oil exploration project manager to the picked-over plains on the edge of a Box-Ironbark forest to live. Or a restoration expert from Sydney's Balmain? Or a bookshop owner from Williamstown? Or a former merchant banker? An astronomer? A fine arts graduate with a passion for buttons? An IT engineer? An author who was the press secretary for former Federal Treasurer Jim Cairns? Or an artist who once managed St Kilda's RSL Club?

Former Sydney real estate manager Rosy Hardress, 39, is unequivocal about the attraction - inexpensive historic housing and peaceful sleeping.

She and her builder husband, Stewart, 46, discovered a miner's cottage in bad repair in Talbot in a national real estate magazine.

In 2004, after five years of planning, they quit their rented house at Sydney's Avalon Beach and came to Talbot without knowing a soul,

"The price (of the cottage) was so low we couldn't believe such a property existed," she says.

On their first visit to Talbot, the Hardresses were "dumbstruck by the streetscape, the shabbiness and the town's potential". But the peace and quiet won them.

"It was so peaceful here," Rosy says. "We could come and sleep and there wasn't a sound."

Port Melbourne's Daniel McDonald, 34, an IT engineer who manages Ericsson's broadband and mobile data services in the Asia-Pacific paid $15,000 in 2000 for an old stone house on a forest block near Talbot where he could hang out with his daughter and friends at weekends. In 2005, he sold it for $112,000 but, far from quitting the area, he bought an 1860s miner's cottage, which he is turning into a bed and breakfast. Late last year he and his partner, Ohnmar Myint, bought the handsome old former Bank of Australasia and the neighbouring former Phoenix Hotel, both single-storey 1860s buildings. They plan to build three shops at the front, a function room and a boutique five-star hotel.

Daniel's IT skills have already been tapped to create websites for local businesses.

"In five years I've seen such a radical change in that town. It's just buzzing. It's going gangbusters," says Daniel from his Melbourne office.

Well, not quite says Meddows-Taylor, who points out that Central Goldfields Shire, of which Talbot is part, has one of Victoria's highest rates of unemployment and lowest disposable household incomes.

Ken Smith, 58, who was raised in a sawtooth weatherboard house on the edge of town that sits forlorn and dilapidated, left for work elsewhere 26 years ago.

Work was never easy to come by in Talbot, he says. He returned recently, drawn in by his long-time attachment.

While Talbot's tree-change transition is fascinating, what's curious is how a band of otherwise disconnected but skilled newcomers, returned and long-time residents have been drawn into more than investing in houses to make dollars.

While it's true that median house prices jumped from $53,000 in 1990 to $115,000 in 2005 not everyone is there for the property returns.

Many, such as Allan Denham, who is back from managing the development of a major new oil project in Peru, don't need a property boom in Talbot to make their fortune.

Alan and his wife, Anne, arrived 10 years ago.

"It was a dying town," says Alan who began a two-page flyer called Talbot Today and Tomorrow "to get the facts out and stem the gossip", he says. Today that newsletter is 16 pages. He's working to get the town sewered and connected to the natural gas pipeline that passes just beyond its boundaries.

"And while we've got the trenches open to lay the gas pipes we could put the power lines there, too," he says. An historic town without overhead power lines would be a hit with filmmakers, he believes.

"What people like Alan have done is brought their skills and that's helped enormously to rejuvenate the town," says Meddows-Taylor.

Former merchant banker Norm Jones who, in 1999, returned to the land his grandfather owned at Amherst 4 kilometres out of town, where he grows grapes for wine, was on the committee that started the farmers' market.

"Don't tell anybody this," he says, "but for the first market they gave me $500 to go to the wholesale food market to buy a whole lot of fruit and vegies because we were so worried we wouldn't have enough at our farmers' market. We only did it once."

Now one of Australia's most successful farmers' markets, it features more than 70 stalls and people queue for stall permits. Tiffany Titshall, a fine arts graduate and printmaker who left St Kilda to settle at nearby Majorca, furiously promotes the market.

"In the beginning there was a grant to get it started," she says.

"We had to pick a date. We couldn't find any producers but we knew we had to do it anyway. So we just kept looking.

"We did the logo, the branding stuff. When none of the other farmers' markets were doing it, we were telling stories about the stallholders, describing the market and doing more e-marketing. We made it pretty and promoted the fact that it was good food and good for the town."

Tiffany and her partner Cal followed her mother Fran to Talbot. Although they live at Majorca, Tiffany has recently opened a vintage clothes and accessories shop called Fanny's Flat in Talbot. "There aren't a lot of overheads. It's a bit of a hobby and I know the town needs more shops," she says.

Norm Jones' son also invested locally, converting the former Presbyterian Church, a gothic 1864 landmark, into luxury accommodation. It's fitted out almost entirely with furniture from Shanghai, where Norm's son works.

Talbot's renewal started with a five-year plan in the late 1990s. Talbot Action Inc was formed to bring many of the town's organisations under an umbrella. It provided liability cover for small, unincorporated organisations and became a uniting force.

Since then, the town has scored at least $1.12 million in grants from federal, state and local governments to restore buildings, streetscapes, resurface the tennis courts and to establish a communications museum.

As with most small towns trying to renew themselves, the locals have contributed enormously. Some, such as Michael and Lyndelle Recchia, draw on their outside resources. Michael and Lyndelle run a painting and construction finishing company, operating in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand. They've been in Talbot part-time for three years, and donated the paint for the overhaul of the town hall.

They have two sons, aged 10 and 13. They also own three hectares in the town's heart where Michael wants to build an art gallery.

"We have made a lot of good friends here," he says. "We did live for the past two years in Talbot but I am so busy that is just got too much to travel so we're back at Middle Park."

Talbot's big achievements have been its farmers' market, the rebuilding of a community centre and the community-owned Quince Farm Cafe, which is leased to a local couple who employ locals.

And a new three-year renewal plan and jobs are on the agenda.

"We've got enough accommodation, now we need shops and services to make it a seven-day a week town," says Meddows-Taylor.

"No one should think this is all beer and skittles," he says.

"We struggle on a whole lot of fronts as other small towns do because we lack infrastructure because councils can't provide it. The only way we can do this is through volunteer work. Volunteers get burnt out - a lot of towns resonate with this problem - so what we're doing now is setting up community-owned assets, like the cafe, that generate income. These assets will be owned by the community but run on business lines."

The goals and dreams are big, but the locals are smart and they've got lots of skills.

Talbot is a place to watch.

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