two eight two eight (named after our postcode) is a vibrant, exciting and innovative community venture in Gulargambone, a small country town in the central west of NSW. two eight two eight boasts an award winning cafe serving Vittoria Coffee, an art gallery and a gift shop selling locally handmade craft and produce.
two eight two eight is also a successful function centre with a quality catering service. Delicious meals, monthly movie nights, a second hand bookshop, library and an annual Dinner under the Stars all add to the visitor's experience and is helping to bring people and economic activity to our town.
But it wasn’t always that way.
This is our story.
Gulargambone (population 395) lies on the banks of the Castlereagh River, 550 kms north west of Sydney. Primarily an agricultural area, it was once a thriving community. When the banks left town and commodity prices dropped, many businesses closed and services declined. Persistent drought and a downturn in the rural economy exacerbated the problem. Gulargambone is now a low socio-economic town with 30% indigenous and high unemployment. Many small towns right across Australia have faced similar circumstances and many have never recovered.
But Gulargambone is different.
We recognised the need to diversify our economic base and, in 2002, the community purchased a dilapidated building with the aim of turning it into a tourist information centre. We felt that despite being very run down, the building, which had once been the community hall, was a perfect venue to attract tourists because it was situated in the main street of town and located on the Castlereagh Highway midway between Gilgandra (50 kms to the south) and Coonamble (50 kms north). We had been witnessing an increasing number of caravans on the highway - either travelling interstate or on their way to nearby attractions: the beautiful Warrumbungles, Macquarie Marshes, Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo and the opal fields at Lightning Ridge. Our goal was to encourage those tourists to stop - and call in.
But first we had work to do. Built in the 1920s, the hall, which had also once been home to The Majestic picture theatre, was in need of some major repairs. During the next few years, several working bees were held (involving a wide cross section of the community including many Aboriginal children) and the building was repaired, renovated and freshly painted. The Tuscan-influenced colours have brought a new lease of life to the main street and the adjoining block has been transformed into an attractive courtyard.
The end result is that tourists are now coming to Gulargambone as a destination in itself - to visit a community centre that is also enjoyed by the locals. Several of the children who helped at the working bees have been trained in hospitality and tourism, and we now provide employment for 5 local adults. two eight two eight has injected hope back into our community.
During World War 1, Gulargambone’s first community hall was destroyed by fire and, during re-construction, the second blew down in a windstorm. The current hall has been here since the 1920s and housed The Majestic, a picture theatre where movies were screened indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. Peter Simpson had owned the block since 1968, and when he heard about our project he offered the site to us for $5,000. Coonamble Council paid half the money and we fundraised the rest at our firstDinner under the Stars which was held in September 2002 in the garden at ‘Minnamoona’, the home of two of our volunteers.
We held two major working bees, the first in October 2002, involving many members of the community. (Over 200 volunteers from the Gulargambone district and surrounding towns have helped us throughout the life of the project and we also had some generous benefactors who wish to remain anonymous - and we’re grateful for everyone’s support).
We had sufficient funds to employ a local builder Denis Radin who worked through the summer to repair the major cracks. By the end of the second working bee in March 2003 the building was painted and ready for use.
Our first function was a movie night in April 2003 where we screened Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. GrainCorp provided the popcorn machine and the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal assisted with a display fridge for cold drinks. The evening was so successful that we started screening monthly movie nights with the children enjoying hot dogs, popcorn and a candy bar. In recent years we set up a Film Society and the adults now enjoy a light meal with their movie - a great way to catch up with friends!
Coonamble Council asked us to take on the town library, located across the road from two eight two eight. We initially queried the request, arguing that we were setting up a tourist centre - but quickly accepted when we discovered it would mean an annual income of $15,000. Our volunteers also help out with story-telling sessions and holiday activities for the children.
In 2003, we were named NSW ‘Can-Do’ Community by the Department of Family & Community Services in Canberra and won $10,000. In June 2003, work started on building the toilets, including one with disabled access and baby-changing facilities.We were encouraged by the NSW Film & Television Office to restore the hall as a movie theatre with a digital projector and ‘surround-sound’ speakers. A small grant from the NSW Ministry for Arts helped us install an acoustic ceiling.
We also built a small kitchen so we could set up a cafe serving instant coffee and tea, but when Les Schirato, CEO of Vittoria Coffee, heard about our project he had other ideas! In May 2003, after a chance meeting with the brother of one of our volunteers, Les Schirato told us he wanted to put something back into regional Australia. He flew four of our volunteers to Sydney for training at the Vittoria Coffee College in Ryde and sent a barista, James Windsor up to Gulargambone to help train others. The girls must have listened well because when Les came out to see us in 2005 he asked one of them to make him a short black - and he told her it was as good as any he had had in Sydney. Les has continued to be a very generous sponsor and we cannot thank him enough.
In November 2003, two former residents: Anna Dent, and former Wallaby Warwick Waugh, came ‘home’ for the weekend and started work on landscaping the courtyard that Anna designed. The courtyard today is a credit to all the hard work that they, their parents and many others have put into it. It has been described as ‘an oasis for weary travellers’. A local boy, Douglas Malone, designed and constructed the corrugated iron sign that hangs on our front wall.
During 2003, the community instigated a town branding program with the help of Sydney artist Sam Newstead. Sam designed and created the template for the corrugated iron ‘galahs', and a large band of Gulargambone volunteers helped to construct them. Forty large galahs now line all the roads leading into town and have become a recognised tourist attraction in their own right, with many people stopping to take photos. Tourists call in to ask questions and can now watch a dvd showing how they were made.
We opened the cafe in 2004 for three days a week with plans to serve quiche in summer and soup in winter. Thanks to the dedication of all our hard-working volunteer cooks, the menu has changed and grown - and the cafe is now open for five days a week. Opening hours: Wednesdays - Fridays: 9am - 4pm; Saturdays and Sundays: 9am - 2pm. In 2004 Gulargambone was named Overall Winner at the NSW Tidy Towns Awards in Broken Hill which meant we would host the 2005 Awards ceremony. We held our first on-site Dinner under the Stars in March 2005 with over 370 people attending.
One of our volunteers, Val Roderick, spent many long hours restoring old furniture for displaying the craft that we sell and another, Helen Ferguson, made the quilted logo that hangs on the back wall. One of Sam Newstead’s murals depicting the story of Gulargambone is a feature of our art gallery. The beautiful mosaic on the floor of the foyer in two eight two eight was created and constructed by another volunteer, Alison Dent, and the town logo was designed by artist Sam Newstead.
In July 2005 we attended our first Inland NSW Tourism Awards ceremony in Tamworth where were excited to be named winners in the New Tourism Business Category. Council’s newly appointed Tourism Development Manager, Steve Baldwin, assisted us with the submission and he and his wife Jenn went on to become regular volunteers in the kitchen at two eight two eight and Steve was a valued committee member until they moved to Birdsville in 2011.
In October 2005, The Big Weekend arrived and 400 Tidy Towns representatives from across NSW descended on the town. We organised Tent City for their accommodation, arranged a host of weekend activities, mobilised the whole town to help and handled all the catering ourselves using our amazing volunteer cooks. Many visitors said it was the best weekend they had ever been to. The Awards Dinner was a night to remember! As a result of winning the Inland NSW Tourism Awards in Tamworth we were automatically accepted as a finalist at the NSW Tourism Awards which were held at Star City in Sydney. We won an Encouragement Award.
During 2006, Nicole Williams, the Hospitality teacher at Gulargambone Central School, instigated the idea of bringing the Hospitality students down to two eight two eight for work experience one afternoon a week. The program was so successful that the students eventually ran the cafe on their own, under Nic’s guidance, for one full day each week. Gulargambone Central School Hospitality students continue to do their work experience and Hospitality training at two eight two eight, and we have since also taken students from Gilgandra High School and Coonamble High School.
That year we also won our first major tourism award: The Gold Award at the 2006 NSW Tourism Awards in the General Tourism Awards category. As winners we went on to represent NSW at the Australian Tourism Awards which were held in Sydney in February 2007 and won there too. We also travelled to Melbourne for the ‘Communities in Control’ Conference and won $3,000 after being named Community Idol for 2007.
In July 2007, after acknowledging that the project had grown bigger than we had ever anticipated, we advertised for our first paid employee - to handle the administration and ever-increasing paperwork required by the bureaucrats. Marguerite Starr from Curban was appointed as a part-time Executive Officer and stayed with us for six years. We outgrew our small kitchen - and in 2008 with generous assistance from Les Schirato we started work on a commercial kitchen. We were also grateful when Chris Scales from the Indigenous Co-ordination Centre in Dubbo called in one day, saw the students in action - and was so impressed that she gave us a donation from FaHCSIA (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs). The lower block has provided the perfect venue for a marquee and we have catered for a few functions here - all catered for by volunteers. A firm of external consultants from Sydney helped us develop our 2009 - 2014 Strategic Plan plan during a two-day workshop. The plan set 4 Strategy pillars: A place for everyone; Developing people; Collaborating with the wider community; Financial sustainability.
The school-based indigenous student traineeship program started in 2009 with Brandon Hammond. Brandon had been contemplating leaving school in Year 10, stayed on till Year 12, and was awarded Apprentice of the Year for the Orana Region. The other student Rorey Millgate was awarded Young Achiever of the Year in 2011. Since May 2013 Brandon has been employed in the cafe and is cooking up a storm in the kitchen! In 2009 we gained accreditation as a Level 3 Visitor Information Centre, which has firmly entrenched Gulargambone on the tourist map.
When you are part of a small community you share in the good times - and the bad. In November 2010, the town (and farmers in particular) were heavily impacted by floods. The local farming group realised they urgently needed to get farmers together to help them realise they were not alone. two eight two eight was approached to be the venue, local banks and agricultural companies sponsored the night, and 300+ locals crammed in to listen and laugh at comedienne Jean Kittson. And when the Queensland floods later put things in perspective, the community rallied again and, in true Aussie spirit and despite their own loss, raised a staggering $21,000 in January to send north.
In 2011, we advertised for our first adult Hospitality trainee and were delighted when Pauline Hammond (Brandon’s mum) applied. Brandon’s sisters, Rikki and Timeaka have also helped out in the cafe and at functions. The venue is now used for a variety of functions: Book Club, concerts, long lunches, art workshops and yoga classes and in recent years has attracted several international visitors. And children love coming for milkshakes, movie nights and school holiday activities at the library!
The annual Dinner under the Stars has become very popular and attracts visitors from across the state. Previous guest speakers include Professor Fred Watson, the ‘Country Squire’ Rob Ingram from Country Style Magazine, Peter Simpson’s son Michael from Vision Australia and chefs Peter Howard and Adriano Zumbo.
And none of this would have been possible without all our volunteers who have shown that by working together extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people!