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Getting by in the big dry

02:00pm August 20 2019

Watch residents of drought affected areas of central NSW describing the impact on their communities. (Video by Josh Wall) 

After sitting abandoned for 12 years, Dubbo’s iconic clock tower building will soon give wings to new businesses that fortify the region’s economic resilience to the brutal impacts of the drought.

That’s the hope of the 132-year-old landmark’s new owner, Jillian Kilby, who bought the former post office and telephone exchange from Telstra and is part way through restoring it into a co-working space for start-up entrepreneurs from the central west regions of New South Wales. 

“The drought has been front and centre on everyone's mind,” says Kilby, who initiated the start-up community – called The Exchange – last year after winning the AgriFuture’s Rural Woman of the Year bursary from Westpac. 

“It’s been quite difficult on a lot of the business owners, whether you’re farming focused or you’re a purely service-related business in Dubbo. Through the co-working community, people are coming together to create a revenue stream that didn't exist before and has never been so necessary.”


Jillian Kilby bought Dubbo’s landmark exchange building to house her co-working start-up hub. (Emma Foster)

The initiative has been welcomed by many around the region who see it as a way to continue to diversify the local business scene, particularly in smaller towns, and reduce reliance on agriculture – something that’s top of mind as the drought gripping huge swathes of Australia’s eastern states heads towards its fourth consecutive year. 

Twelve months since Westpac Wire’s last drought investigation, locals now describe it as the worst in living memory, a view backed up by data from the Bureau of Meteorology which shows rainfall deficiencies throughout inland NSW at levels not seen since 1920, exacerbated by last summer being the hottest on record. It also forecasts median rainfall is unlikely for at least the next three months. 

“This is not something that’s normal by any means,” says Glen Neill, a fourth-generation resident and deputy mayor of Nyngan, which lies 170km north west of Dubbo in the centre of NSW.

Glen Neill, deputy mayor of Bogan Shire Council, at his earthmoving business at Nyngan.  (Emma Foster)

“Droughts are a common thing in Australia, there's no doubt about it,” says the famer and owner of haulage company, Neill Earthmoving. 

“But this area (is) lining up for (its) third year without a harvest. Dad's 86, he's been here all his life, and he's never, ever seen it to this point, and still no end in sight. It's totally unprecedented.”

View our bonus picture gallery: Waiting for the drought to break

Cameron Beard, a senior Westpac agribusiness banker, has personal experience of the difficulties faced by clients through his own sheep, cattle, and cropping partnership located just outside Dubbo in an area usually considered a “relatively safe rainfall environment”.

Like other farmers who “put away in the good years to cover the bad”, Beard says he’d set aside 600 bales of hay – or about 18 months’ worth of cattle feed – in 2016, which he thought would see him through any dry period.

“It ran out probably six or eight months ago,” says Beard who has had to de-stock and ship feed in, like the majority of farmers around the district.

“Most people are still keeping on which is a real testament to the attitude, resilience and a love of what they're doing, but the length of this dry time is starting to really take its toll. It shows you we’ve got to keep learning how to be prepared.”

Farmer and Westpac agri-business manager Cameron Beard on his parched property outside Dubbo. (Emma Foster) 

Water in Burrendong Dam, which supplies towns along the Macquarie Valley including Dubbo, has dropped below 5 per cent of capacity and is predicted by WaterNSW to run dry by June 2020, if no rain falls. Every town along the system faces water restrictions, some already relying on back up bore water.  

“People are definitely worried about the water supply, particularly in the smaller towns,” says Beard. 

He cites flow-on effects in smaller towns that are hard to fathom for anyone not living in drought conditions, like having to cancel kids’ football games because the unwatered rock-hard fields are too dangerous to play on, and shutting down nursing homes and hospitals because of the risks posed by declining water quality, including elevated sodium levels in backup bore water. 

Even the inability to hose gardens for those who take pride in them is taking its toll, according to Dubbo café owner Julie Cross. 

“If your hobby is gardening and you’re watching it just disappear before your eyes, that's just another thing to be unhappy about,” says Cross, whose own yard died months ago.

Dubbo café owner Julie Cross says retailers’ revenue is sliding as drought-affected customers tighten their belts. (Emma Foster) 

As income at the farm-gate dries up, Cross says it’s affecting “everything that runs off it”, with many small businesses in town reducing staff hours, letting them go or, worst case, shutting their doors for good.   

“Just in the main street of Dubbo, there's been around 10 retail businesses closed since Christmas. And today we actually were told by another couple they are closing very soon. You don't like to hear of any business going broke. It's very sad, but you can't hold on forever.”  

She says she’s been heartened by the number of tourists deliberately visiting local towns to show their support by spending their holiday dollars in the region, something she encourages others to do if they can. 

As stock numbers dwindle, adjacent agricultural businesses, like shearing contractors and stock and station agents, are also feeling the pinch, according to Glen Neill. He says he’s heard of laid off shearers and drenchers turning for employment to local mines – which employ around two thirds of Nyngan’s population – although mining operations are also under threat given their reliance on water. 

“If the local mine here shuts down, I'd say you'd just about take Nyngan off the map. Cobar would be the same and it will knock a hell of a dint in Dubbo too,” Neill says. “What we'll see then is a major shift to the bigger centres, which is going to kill these smaller communities.”

A common hope among locals is for action to come from council discussions on drought proofing initiatives, such as off-river water storage facilities, before the ideas “go out the window as soon as the rain falls”. 

“We really need to see some more of these projects happening, which would also create income in those towns and more jobs for people off-farm,” says Glen Neill.

The Exchange founder Jillian Kilby amid the renovations in the landmark clock tower in Macquarie Street, Dubbo.  (Emma Foster) 

The need to generate “off-farm” income is a common reason given by the entrepreneurs who join Jillian Kilby’s start-up community. 

Kilby, who grew up on a farm northwest of Coonamble and, with civil engineering qualifications under her belt, started her first business from a farm west of Walgett, says her resolve to create the community – currently based at Charles Sturt University’s Dubbo campus until the clock tower renovations are complete in around five months – came off the back of five years working in the US’s Silicon Valley after winning an Australian Monash Foundation scholarship to Stanford University. 

While there, she says she saw co-working and community as the essential ingredients in most business success stories, but when she returned to Australia, that ethos was lax in capital cities and non-existent in regional towns like Dubbo, and this was something she wanted to change.

Member of The Exchange co-working community, Kate Griffiths. (Emma Foster)

The community has attracted entrepreneurs with a range of business ideas, from human resources consultants to medical equipment suppliers, many returning to their home towns after time spent away in capital cities. Kilby estimates The Exchange will fit up 50 businesses on a rolling basis.

Community member Kate Griffiths, who started a photography, website and print design business to supplement her clothing and homewares boutique, says The Exchange gave her confidence to grow her activities. 

“Being quite young, I didn't really fit into the traditional business events in town, but The Exchange is a bit of a mix of all ages and all types of businesses, and it’s helped me to meet other business owners and find creatives who I can collaborate with.” 

“By creating this space,” says Kilby, “and renovating this building, we're not just creating a community, we're creating a home, a physical presence and an icon for that community that will live beyond my days. Even when the drought ends and times are better, there will still be a need for The Exchange to support and grow the community.” 

Westpac’s Disaster Relief & Drought Assistance Package continues to be available for eligible customers. 

You may also like this bonus picture gallery: In Pictures: Waiting for the drought to break

Additional reporting by Emma Foster.

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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