ARIA and Golden Guitar winning singer-songwriter Graeme Connors regularly sells out performances from one end of Australia to the other. Connors appears in theatres throughout Queensland and Victoria but never in Goulburn where his promoters, Geoff Bell and his wife Cathy, run Laing Entertainment.
Connors isn’t alone.
National and international entertainers on the Laing roster regularly bypass Goulburn. The reason is simple – the city does not have a performing arts theatre.
That’s about to change according to Goulburn Mulwaree Council’s general manager Warwick Bennett. He expects the new $20 million Performing Arts Centre, now under construction and due for completion early next year, to give Goulburn a huge return, economically and artistically.
“To have a 400-seat performing arts centre is ‘deliciously’ exciting,” Mr Bennett says. “We will have some of the best acts that tour Australia. I think that is something this community deserves.”
Mr Bell says when the theatre is completed a potential market of 100,000 people in the Southern Highlands will be 45 minutes away, with a much better option than travelling to Sydney or Wollongong. Mr Bell predicts Goulburn people will enjoy entertainment not seen previously in their hometown.
“It will be an education process in the short term, there are so many different styles of entertainment out there that don’t come to Goulburn because they won’t play in the clubs,” he says. But his optimism has one rider, a professional theatre manager (with a depth of industry experience, probably from outside Goulburn) will need to be appointed.
Repurposing the former historic town hall for the performing arts is among numerous infrastructure projects Mr Bennett has launched since 2014. Major spending at a local government level contrasts with federal and state government attempts to kick-start rural communities by re-directing new arrivals of migrants, re-locating government departments out of capital cities and offering cash to businesses willing to relocate.
In Goulburn, spending from within has been underway since 2014 to recapture regional centre status after hospitals, secondary schools, tertiary courses and rail services were whittled away. Mr Bennett arrived from the Mid-Western Regional Council to deliver what he terms as “large city infrastructure for a small city price”.
He was surprised to find almost $100 million of ratepayers’ money tied up in investments.
“We didn’t seem to be focussed on delivering good quality community facilities that the community was asking for,” he says. In his first year, the rural roads budget soared by 400 per cent. Seven new bridges priced at $900,000 to $4 million were built to replace old ones.
Goulburn’s main street is being upgraded, building a playground and multi-purpose ‘rage cage’ for ball sports, and hugely popular walkways for the Wollondilly and Mulwaree Rivers through Goulburn and new lighting for cycling have emerged. Mr Bennett eye-balled community groups to ask what they wanted. He argued with ratepayers and retailers alarmed at the spending and traffic changes. Some people said he would send Goulburn bankrupt.
“I can tell you, as of today we have just as much money invested – $94 million – as the day I arrived,” he said.
After working for seven Local Government councils in New Zealand and Australia, he says he has never worked for a more grateful community than Goulburn’s. Now the performing arts centre is underway the council is about to call tenders for a $30 million renewal of the city’s outdoor pool, two new indoor pools, new changing rooms, a new gymnasium and café.
“We continue to use that money to build better and more delicious infrastructure,” Mr Bennett says. “I like to use the word delicious because it actually makes sure this community has an appetite and a real opportunity to enjoy the great community facilities we are providing.”