What would be your big idea to take the Bega Valley into the future?
Would it be a school of excellence to attract and retain skilled workers and grow our local youth? A network of bike and walking trails connecting all of our communities with each other? Perhaps something in the realm of renewable energy generation and storage?
Those were some of the “blue sky” ideas raised by participants at this week’s regional summit hosted by the Bega Valley Business Forum.
The Forum, which represents the six chambers of commerce across the Bega Valley, held the event to not only summarise the outcomes of town summits already hosted in each main centre, but to take those conversations forward with a shire-wide focus.
It was clear that each of the towns had unique perspectives, challenges and priorities. However there were also numerous common threads throughout.
Like the previous town summits and drop-in chat sessions – and one more to come for Cobargo – Monday’s regional summit was led by Bec Jones from NGH Consulting. She said common threads included the need for stronger place identity, connectivity of experiences and services, improving community wellbeing, and a more vibrant, diverse and thriving local economy.
While the combined chambers of commerce are predominantly focused on that local business economy, it was clearly flagged that a whole-of-community approach was needed and that “economic prosperity was not just about the dollars, but about our people too”.
To that end, Bega Valley Business Forum chairman Nigel Ayling said the group was undergoing a fundamental shift and redrafting a new constitution that would allow for a more diverse array of voices and interests to be heard.
He said the changes would see the Forum “be more inclusive” and take it beyond the retail and hospitality focus that many people assume was the limit of chambers of commerce.
The objectives of the Forum, and of the regional summit, he said, were to create a clear vision for the entire Bega Valley, to develop a more resilient business community and for that business community to have a stronger voice at all levels.
“Leadership and collaboration” was among the “Big Idea” focus areas discussed by the 30 or so people at the summit.
Also on the table – literally, with the working group staples of butcher’s paper and sticky notes – were regional employment, connectivity and infrastructure, amenity and liveability, human capital and skills, and sustainable natural resources.
Groups at each table discussed the who, what, when and why for a key project idea under each topic banner, while also brainstorming risks and challenges.
Take a look at what Monday’s groups pitched at the summit and see which one you would prioritise. Or perhaps you have your own?
Connectivity and Infrastructure
A regional biking and trails hub, linking all the shire’s towns and villages to each other through a network of diverse, accessible trails.
It was proposed that this would not necessarily mean building an entire network, but “joining the dots” and connecting existing forest trails, national park walks, MTB tracks and even town footpaths – with wayfinding signage.
It could attract a new tourism economy, improve seasonality given its year-round nature, was inclusive and had health and environmental benefits, as well as a transport option.
A South Coast “School of Excellence”, a shared resource for training facilities alongside an innovation hub, business incubators, networking events.
This was highlighted as a project already in the pipeline, with funding for business development and advisory services already granted. However, there was talk of again “joining the dots” and bringing the various sectors under one banner.
The program would help relieve the current challenges facing employers struggling to retain staff and recruiting from a diminishing pool.
Collaboration and Leadership
This was also an idea bringing various sectors under the one roof, with a proposal to create a “Bega Valley Business Precinct”. It would break down parochialism and look at developing business-focused solutions for the shire as a whole through collaboration and peer support.
The pitch spoke of a key pillars framework applied across the board, with central tenets of collaboration, visitation, sustainability, accessibility and visibility.
“We’ve got the ideas, we need to bring them to a place,” table spokesman Nigel Ayling said.
Amenity and Liveability
Unsurprisingly, housing affordability and availability was flagged as the key focus under this banner.
The pitch spoke to improved housing opportunities leading to increased volume of available employees for local businesses and industries, among many other benefits.
The proposal included petitioning state government to open up its land holdings to affordable housing projects in targeted areas, and to look at higher density development – “apartment living”.
While the need and motivation behind the idea is clear, implementation was noted as the key roadblock. Building “up” wouldn’t necessarily lead to affordable housing given construction and material constraints, while am ongoing Native Title claim over the entire South Coast meant this region had more challenges on land availability than others it was said.
Human Capital and Skills
The idea flagged here was not a new one, but still held great interest for those in the local business sector – an education precinct, capitalising on the close proximity of Bega High School, TAFE Connected Learning Centre and skills hub, and the University of Wollongong campus, as well as the township’s five primary schools.
There was talk of exploring the Country Universities Centre model as well as the potential of converting the adjacent former hospital site into accommodation for students and visiting specialists.
The pitch said more needed to be done to close the gap between what services were provided locally with what businesses here required.
Sustainable Natural Resources
Here was another project with a start already made as Eric Wolske from the Eden Chamber of Commerce expanded on the proposal for a community solar farm and storage for the southern town.
He said the Eden working group had partnered with Cobargo to further explore community micro grids utilising solar as well as small-scale pumped hydro. A funding grant application was in the pipeline for a feasibility study along just those lines, while the potential for wind power – both on and off shore – was also flagged.
Development of standalone power networks was said to align well with disaster preparedness as well as the oft-stated environmental and social benefits of renewable energy, along with attracting new investment and job creation.
There was also talk around the table of ways to make use of the power captured here in things like an electric vehicle charging network, putting the Valley “on the map” for the EV traveler market.
This article first appeared on the Bega District News and was written by Ben Smyth.