TO see five extra people beyond the usual office bearers cheerfully volunteer to join a committee is something South Gippsland Shire Council administration panel chair Julie Eisenbise describes as “astounding”.
Ms Eisenbise personally witnessed such a public-spirited deed at the Foster Chamber of Commerce’s annual general meeting held at the Foster Golf Club on Monday evening September 16, 2019 where she was the guest speaker.
After the Chamber returned all of its previous executive to their positions, unopposed and with applause, five more Foster business owners agreed to serve as ordinary committee members, too.
They were John Davies of Prom Meats, Mrs Devo’s Tanya Duvoisin, Janine Best of Inside Out, Nicole Holder of The Kitchen Table and Revelations’ Deborah Harris.
“It really is astounding to get five self-nominated extras on a committee to help share the load!” Ms Eisenbise exclaimed, while honorarily officiating at the election.
Foster Post Office licensee Phil Rerden is back in the president’s chair, with Shelley Brewer of Natural Living Foster continuing as vice-president and Kate Pulham of Pulhams Furniture and Carpet retaining the Chamber’s purse as treasurer.
Samantha Rogers of Sam’s Patch formally accepted the role of secretary after she stepped up to be the Chamber’s pro tem clerk when Rick Bromley of Bromley’s Café resigned from the position as his and wife Sharon’s business had sold during his term.
Chamber President’s Report
Before the election of the Chamber’s 2019/2020 officers, outgoing (and soon-to-be-incoming!) president Mr Rerden presented his report for 2018/2019 and noting the changes that had occurred in Foster’s central business district and beyond.
He thanked Mr Bromley in absentia for his services to the Chamber and greeted Ms Holder as the new proprietor of The Kitchen Table.
Mr Rerden acknowledged the retirements of two long-serving local district property agents, Russell Jones of SEJ Real Estate and Steve Paragreen of Paragreen Real Estate, and both formerly of PBE Foster.
He also welcomed Gurneys Cider to the Foster Business community, commenting that while cidery co-principal Bill Gurnett was not at the AGM he had become a regular face at the Chamber’s monthly meetings.
Mr Rerden farewelled Elsie’s Florist nursery people Sonja and Steve Weber, who now concentrating on their Leongatha flower outlet.
He observed that Foster’s Main Street currently, and unusually, had three empty shops or business premises, though one of these “may well be rented in the coming future. A fourth commercial premises on the outskirts of Foster is also vacant.
“We’re very lucky in Foster because when the township was laid out it was very compressed [because of Stockyard Creek and the gold diggings] and not spread out over two or three kilometres like many other Gippsland towns are,” Mr Rerden said.
“And, for its size, it has a big variety of businesses, including three banks, a shoe shop, two supermarkets among many others as well as a large range of services including the medical centre and the hospital.
“Retail is now going through its biggest revolution since the 1960s when places like Southland and Chadstone shopping centres first started to appear,” he said.
“Internet shopping is evolving because that’s what today’s customers want.
“Before I took over the Foster Licensed Post Office about 12 years ago, I worked for Australia Post, the biggest corporation in Australia with some 5000 outlets, and at that time it was already looking at what else its customers needed and wanted,” Mr Rerden said.
“The revenue streams at Australia Post have changed how we as licensees make our livings, and as a result I try to work out what my customers’ shopping needs are alongside postal services.”
Summer, Christmas, Foster 150, High School 100
Mr Rerden said the Chamber had started planning for the coming summer and Christmas holiday season and that members were readying themselves and their businesses for their main peak time of the year.
“For the first time since I’ve been here in Foster the Chamber had a real tree in the covered laneway as part of its Christmas promotion with those gold stars that people could write special messages on, and the feedback we got from both locals and visitors was amazing!”
The sesquicentenary of Foster’s foundation occurs in 2020, and the Chamber has been working in parallel with the separate Foster 150 organising committee on a whole year’s worth of celebration and commemoration, with a different theme for each month.
Foster Secondary College has its 100th birthday, too, next year, and planning is well underway for the school’s centenary reunion on Saturday January 24, 2020.
The Chamber had been “instrumental” in coordinating South Gippsland Water and the South Gippsland Shire to support and fund the striking Steampunk Water Maze drinking water fountain in the laneway, designed and built by Foster artist David Bell.
Mr Rerden said the Chamber’s Foster Community Online website received “thousands of hits every month from local people and from interstate and overseas people planning to visit the Wilsons Promontory district.”
He also referred to the fact that the Chamber had “given out many letters of support to local groups that are seeking funding this year” and that it was “pleasing that the groups thought enough of the Chamber to consider a letter from us would help them in their applications.”
Panel backs keeping SGW in Foster
Mr Rerden gave a brief summary of the Chamber’s campaign to keep South Gippsland Water’s main administration and works depot in Foster, with the backing of Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien and a petition with some 1600 signatures Mr O’Brien has tabled in the Victorian Parliament.
The petition calls on State Water Minister Lisa Neville to support the Foster community by retaining SGW main operations in the town.
“In May the Chamber and the Corner Inlet community became aware of SGW’s plan to move away from Foster to either Leongatha or Wonthaggi,” he said.
“Obviously, the loss of 50 jobs from Foster and the surrounding district would have a serious impact on the local economy and the community.
“In purely mathematical terms, the equivalent per capita of 50 jobs taken from Foster is 250 jobs gone out of Leongatha and 500 jobs out of Wonthaggi,” Mr Rerden said.
“The Chamber is talking with SGW and we’re attempting to find good outcomes for the future of Foster.”
During her talk to the Chamber, Ms Eisenbise said she and her fellow administrators Rick Brown and Christian Zahra “are aware of the issue with SGW” and asked to be given a copy of the petition’s wording.
“The challenge is to keep SGW in the South Gippsland Shire by hook or by crook, and we will go back and talk to SGW about their plans as we want to hear what their reasons are,” she said.
“We would like to keep SGW in Foster, and that’s our Number One position and also our Number Two position, while Number Three is to not let it go out of this shire [referring to Wonthaggi in Bass Coast Shire].”
Panel Chair speaks
Mr Rerden thanked Ms Eisenbise for “taking the time to come to our meeting” and for “wanting to learn about our end of this Shire.
“We have so much to offer here, you know,” he said.
In turn Ms Eisenbise expressed her appreciation for being invited to attend and said that administration panel knew that “people are feeling bruised and a bit traumatised” after the Victorian Government dismissed the shire’s elected council in June 2019 and the events leading up to that event.
She then gave a potted history of her background and qualifications that first led to her appointment as one of three commissioners looking into the affairs of the former council, then as interim administrator and now as panel chair.
Ms Eisenbise has worked throughout Australia and overseas as an executive director for RMIT University, has served as mayor of Manningham City Council, and is currently a director of Box Hill TAFE and CAE.
She is also one of three on the Victorian Grants Commission, a government body that “grants federal tax dollars on a needs basis to the 79 Victorian councils.
“South Gippsland Shire got $10 million from the Grants Commission this year!” Ms Eisenbise said, with a grin.
“Being on the commission of inquiry gave me a great insight into the shire and a great insight into the passion of the local people.
“Then I was told on Friday June 21 that I was to be the interim administrator starting on Monday June 24 with the first council meeting to be on Wednesday June 26; I can tell you, I read a lot all that weekend!”
Ms Eisenbise said many local people would remember Mr Zahra from when he was McMillan [now Monash] MHR from 1998 to 2004, and that he was a valuable member of the panel because he “knows protocol” and is well-versed in regional development, advocacy, education, strategy, policy and as an adviser.
Mr Brown is also a former government adviser, is an RMIT University director and adviser, and is “our facts and figures man who is looking closely at the shire’s books and who knows that ratepayers want value for money”.
Ms Eisenbise said the panel was “in an active role”, in charge of the shire council and responsible for making decisions, in the same way as an elected council does.
“We three travel here to the shire and none of us have any vested interests,” she said.
“We’ve also got three priorities for our administration and the first one is to increase the community’s satisfaction with the council as we want the community to be happy and to see how their rates are being spent.
“A lot of dollars are going into roads at the moment and there have been a lot of road slips recently which are causing a bit of grief, but the shire still has to manage them.
“The second priority is to instil good governance into council meetings and to make sure all meetings are conducted properly,” Ms Eisenbise said.
“Our third is working to get advocacy at a state and federal level, in order to find out where and how to get extra funds into the local area.
“We’ve also got a list of priority projects coming out soon and we’re keen to get the support of the community,” she said.
“We as the panel are here until elections are held in South Gippsland Shire in October 2021 as the Local Government Minister Adem Somyurek didn’t think it would be ready in 2020, when the other Victorian councils have their elections.
“In 2021 a three-year term instead of the usual four-year term will be given to South Gippsland Shire so it will be in sync with the rest of the state.”
Ms Eisenbise said the shire “is running a leadership program for clubs and organisations and also for people who may be interested in running for council.
“We want to hear more from younger people, too, as we’re planning for them as well.”
Foster’s got positives
Ms Eisenbise told the Chamber members that she thought “Foster has got some really positive things going for it.
“I have been to Foster four or five times now and when I came here the first time I saw the amazing flowers in street garden beds, and I have to say I’ve never seen anything like it in any of the other 78 municipalities in the state,” she said.
“Foster is extremely well-designed, with its health precinct, its sports precinct and its education precinct, and I like how you can walk everywhere.
“The town is also on the Great Southern Rail Trail, and research has shown that since the Rail Trail opened there has been a 15 per cent increase in the overall spend in the shire, which goes on dining, entertainment, supermarkets and food.
“We’ve now got the VicTrack lease for the section from Nyora to Leongatha at a cost of $800 per year, which I reckon is a good deal, and hopefully the first bit of the extension from Leongatha to Korumburra will start soon.
“There are some bike-oriented places that have started along the Rail Trail that are doing a roaring trade, and more and more people are using the Trail, which means more money into local businesses.
“There is a real potential for prospective businesses to take advantage of the Rail Trail and what it offers for the benefit of the whole shire,” Ms Eisenbise said.
“The Rail Trail here in Foster and the surrounding district is one of this town’s treasures.
“There has been some opposition to the Rail Trail from those who would like a rail service back, however we’re not stopping that because the current infrastructure wouldn’t hold new trains and it would all have to be replaced anyway.”
Shire’s 28 villages
Ms Eisenbise spoke about the “28 or so villages in this shire, which is quite extraordinary and is unique to South Gippsland.
“I’d like to see them working together and I think there could be a lot more internal trade, for example, what has Loch got that might work here, and equally what local produce could Foster supply to Loch?“Seriously, there is such potential across the Shire; cider at Foster, olive oil at Fish Creek, honey at Dumbalk and Mirboo North, gin at Loch …”