Op­ti­mism high in her­itage town

Rich in his­tory, York hasn’t had a lot to cel­e­brate in re­cent times. Ben O’Shea heads to the Wheat­belt town to meet some pas­sion­ate lo­cals turn­ing things around.

Countryman - - COUNTRY LIFE -

Dave Wal­lace gazes out across a field of canola but the pained ex­pres­sion on his face sug­gests the York farmer and Shire pres­i­dent is look­ing far be­yond the crop.

He shifts his weight from one foot to the other, vis­i­bly un­com­fort­able at the prospect of putting the de­spair and dis­ap­point­ment of the Wheat­belt town’s re­cent his­tory into words.

A bat­tered cap sport­ing the logo of a farm­ing sup­plies com­pany sits on his head. He ad­justs it, push­ing the brim back­wards to re­veal more of that pained ex­pres­sion as he pre­pares to speak.

“Ghosts of the past, let’s leave it at that’” he said.

WA’s old­est in­land town was once known as a mecca for fes­ti­vals, with an an­nual food and wine event, pop­u­lar jazz fes­ti­vals in the 1980s and 90s and the Fly­ing Fifty clas­sic car race that lever­aged the en­dur­ing ap­peal of Peter Briggs’ Mo­tor Mu­seum.

One by one, whether due to de­clin­ing at­ten­dance or lack of coun­cil sup­port, the fes­ti­vals left town. In the case of the Fly­ing Fifty round-the-houses race, ven­tur­ing 30 min­utes up the road to Northam in 1999.

The beau­ti­ful Im­pe­rial Ho­tel on Avon Terrace closed, as did other busi­nesses on the main street; iconic trees were cut down in a con­tro­versy The West Aus­tralian re­ferred to at the time as the “chain­saw mas­sacre” and, in 2015, the en­tire coun­cil was dis­missed by then-lo­cal gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Tony Simp­son.

“It was pretty bad, and un­for­tu­nately it was the peo­ple of York who were suf­fer­ing be­cause of it all,” Mr Wal­lace said of the pe­riod.

Mr Wal­lace, whose fam­ily’s roots are sunk as deep in the rich, loamy soil as his crops, was urged to run for pres­i­dent af­ter the pre­vi­ous coun­cil was dis­missed. He serves re­luc­tantly and seems, con­se­quently, to be the ideal per­son for the job, with no greater am­bi­tion than im­prov­ing the lot of the town he loves.

“I was re­luc­tant be­cause I was scared of do­ing the role, and the ex­tra com­mit­ment and work, and try­ing to bal­ance run­ning the farm,” he said.

“I’m glad I did be­cause, if you look around now, we’re in a re­ally good place.”

Mr Wal­lace said a proac­tive coun­cil and an ex­ec­u­tive that had worked tire­lessly to im­prove the shire’s gov­er­nance have also re­sulted in in­creased in­vestor con­fi­dence.

“Prop­er­ties are chang­ing hands again and there is ob­vi­ously a lot of in­vest­ment in busi­nesses,” he said.

Ar­guably the most no­table prop­erty to change hands re­cently has been the Im­pe­rial Ho­tel, bought five months ago by a con­sor­tium of York cou­ples that in­tends to cre­ate a venue the whole town can be proud of. “We thought we’d have a bit of a go at it,” con­sor­tium spokesman Lau­rie Fair­clough said.

He hopes to have it open in the first quar­ter of next year, com­plete with new bars, a court­yard de­signed by WA builder Don Rus­sell and food worth trav­el­ling for.

The Im­pe­rial isn’t the only thing on Avon Terrace get­ting a new lease on life cour­tesy of lo­cal in­vest­ment.

The beloved Mo­tor Mu­seum has been se­cured from an age­ing Briggs in a com­mu­nity buy­out and will be “fresh­ened up” with new cars, ac­cord­ing to long-time cu­ra­tor Graeme Cocks.

In­vestor dol­lars that had slowed to a trickle are be­gin­ning to flow once more, pass­ing through town as surely as the Avon River af­ter a heavy down­pour.

Fre­man­tle fund man­ager Rob Gar­ton-Smith and wife Jenny Gar­roun bought the old post of­fice build­ing af­ter spend­ing a night in York as tourists in 2008.

“We could not be­lieve that such a build­ing could be in pri­vate hands, we thought surely the State Gov­ern­ment or the Na­tional Trust should own that build­ing,” Mr Gar­ton-Smith said.

The town was firmly in the dol­drums at that stage, which means their de­ci­sion to make an in­vest­ment in a sec­ond her­itage build­ing was an as­ton­ish­ing leap of faith.

“It’s got noth­ing to do with any prin­ci­ples that come from fund man­age­ment, we’ve been in­vest­ing here purely emo­tion­ally,” Mr Gar­ton-Smith ad­mit­ted

“Which might come back and bite us but we don’t think so,” his wife added with a wry smile.

Ms Gar­roun said York had “re­ally good bones”, mean­ing the po­ten­tial of the town was in its build­ings.

The cou­ple proved that and then some by buy­ing the aban­doned back­pack­ers hos­tel at 152 Avon Terrace and restor­ing it to the way it looked in 1886, when it was the im­prob­a­bly grand W. Dins­dale Boot Man­u­fac­turer and Im­porter.

Wil­liam Dins­dale opened his shoe em­po­rium one year be­fore the Yil­garn gold rush, which speaks to the con­fi­dence he had in the lo­cal econ­omy.

Un­for­tu­nately for Dins­dale, the in­tro­duc­tion of mo­tor ve­hi­cles re­duced the de­mand for shoes and he was bank­rupt by 1908.

Rob and Jenny hope to fare bet­ter with a gallery space.

To that end, Jenny started the York Bazaar four years ago, which has grown, with buy-in from lo­cals and visi­tors alike, to be­come the month-long York Festival that will con­tinue to draw peo­ple from Perth well into next month.

She knows what a suc­cess­ful event can mean for the town.

It means busi­ness for peo­ple such as Mike and Jo Bryant, who left Perth last year to start anew as op­er­a­tors of a bou­tique guest­house at the foot of Mt Bakewell.

Their idyl­lic Hope Farm Guest­house was built around the orig­i­nal 1880 cot­tage of Dr J. W. Hope, who fell in love with He­lena Aurora Monger but couldn’t gain the ap­proval of her father, John Henry Monger.

When the pow­er­ful lo­cal busi­ness­man fell ill, Dr Hope pro­vided treat­ment and, in do­ing so, won per­mis­sion to marry his sweet­heart.

“Part of the thrill of own­ing such a gor­geous prop­erty is know­ing the sto­ries of the peo­ple who went be­fore us,” Ms Bryant said.

If the buzz around town isn’t ap­par­ent yet, it will be soon if Damian Green gets his way.

He left a ca­reer in mar­ket­ing and event pro­mo­tion in Perth with dreams of es­tab­lish­ing a world­class bee dis­cov­ery centre and re­search fa­cil­ity in York, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Univer­sity of WA and un­der­writ­ten by a manuka honey op­er­a­tion that will pro­duce a prod­uct that fetches up to $500/ kg.

“We’ll be help­ing to cre­ate a lot of healthy hives around the world, from right here in York,” Mr Green said.

Sim­i­larly am­bi­tious are ru­moured plans for the old York Mill, which sug­gest a mi­cro­brew­ery and dis­tillery are on the way. If that hap­pens, it would likely be a game changer, and in no small part due to a coun­cil that went from be­ing a blight on its ratepay­ers to one of the town’s big­gest as­sets.

Af­ter years of ne­glect, op­ti­mism is emerg­ing cau­tiously in York, like those first shoots of the canola plants, des­tined to even­tu­ally cre­ate the vast swathes of yel­low that en­cir­cle the town each spring.

The Bal­lar­dong Noon­gar have al­ways watched from afar as for­tunes were made and lost in York,

The Bal­lar­dong Noon­gar have al­ways watched from afar as for­tunes were made and lost in York, their ac­cess to the town­ship closely con­trolled since the 1840s.

When the 1905 Abo­rig­ines Pro­tec­tion Act was passed, the Bal­lar­dong were con­fined to the York Abo­rig­i­nal Re­serve, away from town on what was a tra­di­tional camp­ing ground.

Life for the Bal­lar­dong peo­ple didn’t im­prove no­tice­ably un­til the 1967 ref­er­en­dum but even then, at­ti­tudes were slow to change.

Dave Wal­lace said the coun­cil is ac­tively work­ing to in­clude the Bal­lar­dong peo­ple in York’s fu­ture.

“One of the things we’re try­ing to fo­cus on at the Shire is a lit­tle more recog­ni­tion for our lo­cal indige­nous peo­ple,” Mr Wal­lace said..

“This year, for the first time in its his­tory, the Shire of­fice is rais­ing the Abo­rig­i­nal flag ev­ery day, and the coun­cil is en­deav­our­ing to get more indige­nous res­i­dents in­volved in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. It was a small step.”

For now, small steps might be enough.

Pho­tos avail­able at west­pix.com.au Pic­tures: Iain Gille­spie

York Shire pres­i­dent and canola grower Dave Wal­lace.

Cafe and gallery own­ers Rob Gar­ton-Smith and Jenny Gar­roun.

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