Batlow charts course forward

The group, Covid-spaced, listened to David Newell of Resilience NSW.

The mood in Batlow was bright last Saturday, despite the pouring rain, as 50 local residents took part in a ‘Next Steps’ workshop facilitated by the Snowy Valleys Council, ResilienceNSW, the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and local organisations.

The event was funded under Phase Two of the NSW Bushfire Community and Resilience Fund, as part of the Stream Two grants for social recovery initiatives.

The workshop gave attendees a chance to reflect on the past, both before and after last summer’s bushfires, and chart a course forward. Thirteen specific projects were brought forward at the end of the day, with concrete plans for action.

The workshop opened with attendees Covid-spaced throughout the Batlow RSL Club and focused on a guiding question: “What is possible when we work together for the positive long-term recovery and renewal of Batlow?”

Kevin Stokes offered the Welcome to Country, setting the cheerful tone for the day.

“Caring for the land has been an ongoing issue for the Aboriginal people for as long as they’ve been on this land,” he said, adding that the group was there to “rebuild this land that we’ve all been gifted with.”

“Thank you all and I hope we can put our ideas and smiles and laughter into this situation and build a better future for our community and our country. Welcome with love and kindness.”

Ray Billing of the Batlow Development League introduced some of the other agencies leading the workshop, describing how “the 4th of January this year really hit the reset button for this town and we are still in the process of resetting.”

“It’s been quite a challenging year, as you all know,” he said. “Today is a great chance for the community to come together and look at where we need to go in the future.”

After the formalities, the workshop broke down into small groups, with opportunity for each attendee to answer questions about where Batlow stands and where it could or should go.

NBRA Disaster Recovery Officer Peter Pigott encouraged the group that “things work best is where the community has some drive of its own determination and then is supported by different resources.”

“Governments can often provide resources, but … it’s not just money, but it’s time and people’s ideas,” he said.

The Red Cross was on hand, to facilitate CovidSafe drinks and snacks, as well as emotional support for anyone feeling unsettled by the discussion. 

“The Red Cross is here to help us in that, to make this a space where we can feel comfortable and safe,” said Mr Pigott.

Throughout the workshop, attendees were given formal and informal time to talk through their ideas, or to use post-it notes to add comments to questions which were posted around the room. Those questions asked residents to reflect on Batlow’s current strengths, obstacles and opportunities.

“Build on what you have,” said Mr Pigott. “Start from where you are, work together and acknowledge that it gets messy and there’s uncertainty.”

Recognising that it won’t be easy to work together, but it is vital for Batlow’s long term future, he asked people to “get curious, not furious,” when they face disagreements.

After some time spent commenting on Batlow’s current situation, a “Next Steps Marketplace” was created, with 13 different ideas posed by community members. They included: 

• Rail Trail (including a proposal for a Batlow-Kunama trail, eco-tourism and a MTB organisation with a youth downhill sports competition)

• Pump track/Skate Park

• Batlow Men’s Shed

• Batlow Power House

• High Country Cider, Food & Wine Trail

• Farm gate sculpture initiative

• Markets for local produce on the Old Cannery concrete slab, and climbing walls/archery/youth camps at the Old Cannery site

• Batlow Resilience Hub for future preparedness and planning

• ‘Undefendable’ writing project – recording the stories of Batlow under fire

• Historic walkway from Bartoman St to Memorial Ave

• Eucalyptus seedling for the area to support wildlife

• Opening the Batlow-Talbingo Road

• Rebuilding the Pilot Hill Arboretum

One of the younger attendees, 20-year-old Morgan Mende, spoke passionately about supporting his town, telling the room that the local business owners are hard working people and deserve to be seen and supported. 

“I’m sick of telling people where I’m closer to rather than where I’m from,” he said, earning a healthy round of applause.

To ensure that Saturday’s ideas continue to move forward into genuine action, the Snowy Valleys Council will be holding another meeting this Thursday to help connect the proposals with genuine funding opportunities.

SVC’s Recovery Coordinator Andrew Rae assured the crowd that the council will continue to support Batlow’s rebuilding phase.

“What a fantastic morning,” he said. “I’m just so pumped for you guys. 

“It’s a long way from where we were ten months ago. I get around most of the district …  and I can tell you wholeheartedly that we haven’t got too many communities as far advanced as you guys are at the moment.”

Mr Rae said the SVC would host a drop-in session on Thursday for one or two representatives from each project to meet and discuss plans for grant writing and coordination with the relevant government agencies or key stakeholders.

“We’re not going to leave until we scope this out a bit and put some meat on the bone,” he said

“There’s a lot of questions to be answered. There’s great concepts here, we just need to flesh them out a little bit.”

Mr Rae also congratulated the group on working together on some of the ideas which overlapped from group to group.

“One of the things I found amazing this morning was that when people had an idea and it fell into someone else’s idea, they were quite happy to share. That’s fantastic. You won’t achieve anything without that type of collaboration.”

SVC has already been notified it is eligible for $250,000 worth of funding from Phase Two of the NSW Bushfire Community and Resilience Fund under ‘Stream One’ and Mr Rae said that if that money is approved, some will be “set aside for what we’re calling place activation plans”.

“All this work you’ve done today has saved us a bucket load on doing more consultation about finding ways to activate Batlow,” he said.

An additional $75,000 from that funding (if it’s approved) will also be set aside for cleaning up the Weemala Walking Track.

“I know for the community of Batlow that’s really important,” said Mr Rae. 

A portion of the $250,000 will also be set aside for a round of microgrants for community initiatives, ranging from $500-$5000. Mr Rae said those details were still being worked out, but anticipated they would be ready early in 2021.

Wagga MP Dr Joe McGirr participated quietly in the workshop, joining various groups to brainstorm ideas for Batlow’s recovery. At the end of the day, he congratulated the group on their forward-thinking work.

“People are looking at Batlow,” he said. “They’re looking at what you’re doing here and I think it’s going to be a great story for Australia.”

The final words of the day were offered by community members as Mr Pigott asked how people were feeling as they left.

“Excited and positive,” said Janet Peel.

“Ex-cidered,” added Harald Tietze.

“Inspired… activated and positive… energised,” continued the room.

“Better,” said Ralph Wilson.

“Grateful,” said Tina Billing.

Various cycling projects

Morgan Mende and Edmund Blenkins proposed a mountain biking organisation to promote youth sports and put Batlow on the sporting map. The young men added their efforts to the existing cycling and rail trail-related ideas on Table One and said their next step was to talk to landowners, both public and private, to find an appropriate location.

Gilmore farmer Doug Rand joined the same table with a proposal for a Batlow-Kunana rail trail, giving the Gilmore farmers a break from the debate while still offering the town of Batlow a rail trail opportunity.

Marjory Tomlinson joined the same table, with the Batlow-Tumut Rail Trail, later announcing a new committee was being formed, the ‘Batlow to Tumbarumba Trail Network Committee.” She said work continues on a feasibility study for the Batlow to Tumut trail, but their focus will be on the first section of the trail from the Old Cannery to Wybalena.

Pump Track/Skate Park

Cara Ironside of Table 2 said their next steps are to gather support from local community groups for the pump track and skate park and to start looking for grant funding.

Batlow Men’s Shed

Neil Shaw of Table 3 said work on a Men’s Shed for Batlow will continue as the group seeks incorporation, which will then enable them to apply for support from the Men’s Shed associations. They’re also continuing to look for a suitable location, either permanent or temporary.

Batlow Power House

Andrea Sturgess was leading an effort to have the recently re-discovered Batlow Power House cleared and restored as a tourist attraction. The fires uncovered the old structure and Mrs Sturgess said it could be Batlow’s equivalent of the Adelong Falls gold mine ruins.

“We need to clear the fallen trees and control the blackberries before it gets overgrown again and gets lost,” she said, adding that her group would try to share historic information and education about the site with regional schools. They plan to contact Forestry Corp to ensure the site isn’t lost to overgrowth again.

High Country Cider, Food & Wine Trail

Janet Peel proposed a food and wine trail for Batlow, linking with local rail trail and cycling initiatives. Her group planned to start producing a brochure and app for marketing, which would “get that rolling.”

Farm gate sculpture initiative

Robyn Sweeney said that with farmers being incredibly busy, it will be important to bring any sculpture initiatives to the farms, rather than expecting people to travel into town for a workshop. She’s hopeful that landowners will be able to use some of the fire debris to build artworks to commemorate the fires, and was looking for ways to connect with the rail trail/bike tracks/walking track ideas.

“The next step is to apply for funding for taking sculpture workshops to the farms,” she said.

Markets and climbing walls/archery/youth camps at the Old Cannery site

Close to 70 per cent of the hall lifted their hands when Beth David asked if they’d be interested in supporting a regular market day for Batlow. Further discussion was planned to explore options for a location, timing and stall holders.

Batlow Resilience Hub

Ray Billing of the Batlow Development League said his group at Table 8 were exploring a possible location for a dedicated Resilience Hub in Batlow, which would help with both recovery and future planning. They were also looking at ways to staff the Hub with both paid staff and volunteers.

‘Undefendable’ writing project

Sulari Gentill and Sarah Kynaston will be compiling written stories from Batlow residents to catalogue the local experience.

“Our next step is to make a public call out for contributions and also perhaps look at a way to assist people who might not feel confident to tell their story in writing and try and develop a scribe system or some way of assisting them,” said Ms Gentill.

Historic walkway

Max Gordon-Hall of Do It For Batlow will be overseeing a historic walkway to be constructed from Bartoman St to Memorial Avenue. 

Eucalyptus seedlings and wildlife support

The table, led by Kevin Stokes, planned to “look at the balance between the pine and natural bush habitat and whether they compete with each other” around Batlow. They hoped to work with Do It For Batlow to make good use of funding awarded for rehabilitation of Batlow’s lookout hill.  

Opening the Batlow-Talbingo Road

Deb Wiltshire spoke with Dr Joe McGirr, Wagga MP, about the need for consistent access through the Batlow-Talbingo Road, especially for emergency services. The road is often closed for logging, but Ms Wiltshire said it was a vital link for the towns.

Developing the Pilot Hill Arboretum

Phil Clements felt that the Pilot Hill Arboretum could serve as a tourist destination and “a substitute for the Sugar Pines”, which were burnt last summer. 

“It’s already there, it’s going to require probably a minimum amount of work to get it up to scratch at this time,” he said. “As far as it being able to integrate with so many of the other things being talked about today, I think it’ll fit very nicely.” He said his group would contact Forestry Corp to organise a working bee at the arboretum.