Rugged bash: $40,000 drought event draws small attendance in Glen Innes

Vince Sorrenti makes a gag on Saturday morning to a medium-sized crowd.
Vince Sorrenti makes a gag on Saturday morning to a medium-sized crowd.

Was the $40,000 Rugged Bash drought relief event worth the expense?

The event, the first of its kind, cost the Federal taxpayer nearly $40,000. Glen Innes Severn Council hired two big-name acts, paid for TV ads region-wide and council staff spent hours organising and advertising the event. Some two dozen stallholders attended, selling everything from a gin and tonic to a beanie.

And yet it seemed only around 100 people were interested in seeing star Vince Sorrenti or X-Factor finalists Brothers3 - free of charge.

Band member Shardyn Fahey-Leigh speculated the poor attendance was due to the cold, which hit an apparent temperature of 6.7 degrees as they started performing that evening. It was a wet and grey day on Grey Street on June 8.

"The idea (of the event) was it just gives everyone that option (to hear us). Having some people here to give them entertainment," he said.

Fahey-Leigh said the concert was one of the coldest they'd ever played but would be keen to come back for a second.

Empty chairs at the Rugged Bash drought event.

Empty chairs at the Rugged Bash drought event.

Rugged Bash was sold to the Federal government and approved by them as "a family-friendly, fun and educational drought community relief event," according to one media release.

Mayor Carol Sparks, in a media release, said it was tricky to know how best to respond to the worst drought in decades, saying the community is in "somewhat uncharted waters" given the unprecedented dry.

"Rugged Bash was a small and happy event that was funded by the Federal Government under its Drought Communities Fund," she said.

"With limited funds there is no perfect answer. The Federal Government is to be applauded for showing initiative in terms of assisting the community.

"If just one member of our community had a laugh with Vince Sorrenti to take their mind off tough times or learnt from the stories of the 'Unbreakable Farmer', Warren Davies, where he demonstrated his resilience, persistence and determination, then I would rate the event a success."

She also pointed to the weather as damper on turnout and said staff would convene a debrief meeting in coming weeks, saying council wanted to learn from the event.

"In terms of future events that seek to close off the main street any decision making process will continue to balance such proposals with the needs of existing businesses," she added.

David Scott sells a bottle of glen gowrie gin.

David Scott sells a bottle of glen gowrie gin.

The way Drought Communities works: the Glen Innes Severn council was allowed to apply for the opportunity to apply for essentially a million dollars' grant money for projects over the last year.

You cannot use money granted through the Drought Communities program to fund individual farms. Eligibility requirements are strict.

You can however fund road resurfacing, free tickets to the show or to upgrade timber bridges as Tenterfield shire has. You can fund local drought support services like GLENRAC.

The council has used the cash to pay for among other things a new water supply stand in Deepwater and toilets in Melling park, as well as road resurfacing.

Glen Innes Severn Council applied for a number of ineligible projects, before councilors ultimately and unanimously voted in November 2018 to apply for $39,961 to fund "a free community event to support those individuals and businesses affected by the drought and an opportunity for local support services to reach people in an informal environment."

The event was to "provide a respite for everyone in the local and wider community effected (sic) by the drought" as one advertisement put it.

But the perception among many of the business owners it was designed to help is that farmers didn't bother to turn up and if anything it hurt their bottom line.

Sue Waters, owner of Carelles and daughter of the land, says most cockies would have been too exhausted to bother.

"All of my customers on farms didn't come in because they were feeding stock or doing work," she said.

In her view it was a poor cousin to last year's Chill in Glen, which she said had a longer organisational lead-in but ultimately had far more stalls and cost far less. Others compared it unfavorably with the Ben Lomond Winter Fair, also a free event organised by volunteers.

Business in Carelles was 25 per cent down on an ordinary Saturday, she said, which she blames on the closure of carparking in front of her business deterring impulse traffic. Other business owners had similar complaints.

Kathryn Luxford.

Kathryn Luxford.

GLENRAC, which ran a stall at the Bash, said they didn't measure how many farmers actually spoke to them but drought officer Kylie Falconer described their day as "pretty fair" considering the weather, with numbers dropping off as weather worsened through the afternoon.

"We spoke to some farmers, we spoke to people from town and interestingly we spoke to a lot of visitors to town; not a lot, but while I was there for a couple of hours we would have spoken to half a dozen to a dozen people who were visiting town from out of town," she said.

GLENRAC hosted a professional from a rural financial counselling service and a state government rural resilience officer but were unable to bring in any specialist mental health service providers due to the long weekend.

The Examiner has contacted many caravan parks to ask if they saw an uptick in bookings. One was fully booked - most said their weekend wasn't an unusual one.

Rugged Bash didn't cost Glen Innes the world. It won't break the Federal government's bank. But with an ante of $40,000, the question is whether it was a reasonable bet that an outside event during a Glen Innes winter would be so cold it would see off punters.

Council is planning another event in September, a Festival of the Wind. It will be an opportunity for council to have a second chance at drawing a crowd - this time off its own bat, without Federal subsidy.