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In the wake of mining: Hunter town finding optimism in industry diversity

By Ethan Hamilton
Third generation dairy farmer Chris Maslen. Picture: Simone De Peak

AS COAL mines along the Bucketts Way wind down, taking jobs and economic benefits with them, residents in the Upper Hunter town of Gloucester are "excited" about the potential of other industries in the area.

According to REMPLAN data, "Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing" is the largest industrial sector in the Gloucester region. Accounting for more than $120 million - almost 18 per cent - of the region's total output, it provides 339 of the 1794 jobs.

Third generation dairy farmer, Chris Maslen, has a bittersweet relationship with the coal industry.

In 2012, after more than two years of negotiations, Mr Maslen sold his farm to Gloucester Resources Limited (GRL) for the proposed Rocky Hill coal mine. Due to his land not being earmarked for immediate mining, Mr Maslen was able to lease his 278 hectares, along with surrounding properties, off GRL for a period of 10 years.

"We originally tried to compete to purchase land against the mine, which was foolish of me, but I was quite passionate," Mr Maslen said. "Eventually they completely surrounded us and at some point I had to make a financial decision to sell."

The Rocky Hill project was rejected by the Land and Environment Court in 2019 after a groundswell off community opposition. In 2020, Mr Maslen purchased the leased land off GRL, including 18 houses, and now runs his operation off more than 1700 hectares.

"It was definitely a stressful time for our family. But it is exciting for the industry," he said. "It's not often a dairy farmer is able to bring together this much land so close to the coast."

Prior to the sale, Mr Maslen said, he and his wife Sally ran about 250 head of cattle mostly by themselves. Now the operation has 16 employees on the payroll and is milking more than 700 cows a day.

"Leasing something just isn't the same as owning it. We now have that drive to keep growing and improving and hopefully those benefits feed back into Gloucester."

While he notes agriculture and mining are in direct competition with each other at times, Mr Maslen said coal mining has played an important role in Gloucester's economy.

"I've got mates who are subcontractors to the mine and I've got tenants in houses that work down there."

In a Bucketts Way state of mines

Less than half an hour south of Gloucester, Stratford and Duralie are the last two coal mines on the Bucketts - both owned by Yancoal.

In line with approval, Duralie stopped extracting coal in December 2021, with Stratford approved to extract until December 2025.

A Yancoal spokesperson said coal mining at the Stratford site is anticipated to finished by the end of 2024.

Duralie coal mine pit as seen from the Bucketts Way. Picture: Simone De Peak

The spokesperson told the Newcastle Herald Stratford and Duralie currently have 120 full- time Yancoal employees and contractors, providing "flow-on impacts" to the community.

"In 2021 Yancoal estimates that Stratford/Duralie's economic flow on impact was $180 million, which included almost 900 jobs, paying wages of around $70 million, with most of these flow-on impacts directly benefitting the Gloucester region," the spokesperson said.

"Once coal production ends, rehabilitation and closure activities at the Stratford/Duralie mine site will continue to offer employment opportunities for people in the local community over several years."

Yancoal is undertaking early stage assessment of the potential for a renewable energy hub at the mine sites.

In a break-room-come-office at the dairy, Mr Maslen outlined the property via satellite imaging technology on his iPad. He said the future of agriculture around Gloucester - driven by technology - is promising.

"We are looking a lot into carbon farming through sequestration," he said. "I like to think we not only provide good, steady jobs with an attractive lifestyle, we also give young people an opportunity to get experience in agriculture while they are still at school.

"There's a huge future in our region for agriculture. With the use of drones and other technology it's promising for young people."

Manufacturing a future in the bush

Technology, especially in agriculture, will play a significant role in Gloucester's economic future according to Gloucester Business Chamber president, Matt Clinch.

"You've got agriculture, you've got industrials, you've got commercial retail and you've got mechanical. They could all benefit from a tech hub here," Mr Clinch said.

"You'll see a massive technology shift with some of the generational farmers here."

Gloucester Business Chamber President Matt Clinch. Picture: Simone De Peak

Mr Clinch came to Gloucester from Sydney in 2017 and got involved in the chamber due to the number of empty shopfront he saw in the main street.

Also holding a role as general manager at Leveltec Engineering, Mr Clinch sees manufacture as a significant part of the region's future.

"We will see a revamp of small component manufacturing," Mr Clinch said.

"With the growth of Newcastle airport and improved infrastructure there is every reason for businesses to set up a manufacturing base here for the lifestyle."

For a regional town, with an estimated population of around 3000, the range of industry in Gloucester comes as a surprise to many.

Manufacturing and distributing electrical equipment from their workshop in Gloucester, Leveltec is one such industry.

"We do electrical, mechanic and fitting work and those products are on sold to mining, transport and shipping," Leveltec CEO Ben Stokes said.

Starting out in the 1980s manufacturing a level control device for stockpiles in the mines, which is still sold internationally, a lifestyle change inspired the Leveltec directors to move the business to Gloucester in 2013.

Leveltec CEO Ben Stoke. Picture: Simone De Peak

While Mr Stokes said around 40 per cent of their business remains in the mining industry, Leveltec now offers a "niche set of electrical engineering products" to a growing and diversifying market.

He also said as the world calls for more renewables, the requirement for their equipment in the extraction of raw materials grows.

"When you look at bulk material handling in terms of mining we have actually been growing year on year," he said.

"The rest is split up between transport, manufacturing and electrical equipment associated with renewable projects such as solar farm and wind farms."

For Mr Stokes, the opportunity for manufacture can't be understated.

"As regional development continues and people start to diversify out of major cities, there is a sustainable future for manufacturing in Gloucester."

Hardship for budding regional businesses 

Founder and owner of Drifta Camping and 4WD Luke Sutton isn't as sure about the future of manufacture in the town.

What started out as a two-man operation almost 20 years ago, Drifta now employs around 100 staff in their seven Gloucester workshops, with more staff at retail locations in Stockton, Heatherbrae, Gosford, Wollongong, Brisbane and soon to be Coffs Harbour.

Drifta is one of the world's largest manufacturers of 4WD drawer and camper kitchen systems.

"It was two decades of building sheds ourselves while trying to run a business," Mr Sutton said.

"I was living in one end of the shed full time because we couldn't afford a house."

Gloucester Industrial Park. Picture: Simone De Peak

While he "loves" the lifestyle, the location and the people, Mr Sutton said if he had of known the business would grow as much as it did, he wouldn't have started out in Gloucester.

Due to their location, Drifta spends more than $100 thousand a year on transport costs.

"The margin on Australian made products is already very small and with extra costs like freight it makes it hard to run a larger business in small town."

Mr Sutton said the higher salaries available in industries like coal has exacerbated his staff shortage.

"We are in a critical trade shortage across Australia at the moment and with the cost of houses it's becoming almost impossible to get staff here."

For all the challenges, Mr Sutton doesn't plan to take his industry anywhere. He said if it wasn't for the cheaper land prices in Gloucester he would never have been able to establish the business in the first instance.

He said the benefits for small, regional towns of having a significant name in manufacture are "too numerous to mention".

As well as injecting around $5 million a year in wages into the local economy, Drifta attracts visitors to the town through their fit-out service.

"We currently have a back-order of around six months and many of these people will come to town to have their drawers or kitchen fitted out at the workshop," Mr Sutton said.

"We offer a free shuttle around town and many of these people stay the night and spend money at local businesses.

"We also have accounts with more than 200 business around Gloucester, Taree and Newcastle."

Drifta Cabinetmaker Nic Nielson. Picture: Simone De Peak

Nick Nielson, Drifta's first employee, said if it wasn't for the company he would have been forced to leave town in search of employment.

"If Luke didn't give me a job at the time I would have had to move away to get work because there were no other jobs around town at that point," Mr Nielson said.

In 2004, Mr Nielson left school as a 16-year-old to start his cabinet making trade at the company. He said Drifta's role as an attraction for visitors is widespread.

"It's good for tourism and good for the economy of the town," he said.

"Everywhere you go, people see Drifta and associate it with Gloucester."

According to CoreLogic data, median house prices in Gloucester have gone up close to 30 per cent in the 12 months to May 2022.

Mr Sutton said property prices and transport infrastructure need to be addressed before manufacture can become a major part of the region's future.

On top of this, Matt Clinch said slow approval times for development applications (DAs) is making it hard to establish new business in Gloucester.

"We are seeing DAs that are taking 18 months to be approved," Mr Clinch said.

"It's not sustainable for a business to move up here if they have to wait that long to put some concrete down.

"However, the Businesses Chamber is opening a lot of lines of communication with council, particularly around economic development."

The tourist trade

With close to 1500 tourism emplyees around the Mid Coast, Mr Clinch said the industry is a "huge focus" for Gloucester Businesses Chamber.

A big part of this future, he said, comes from the minimal mining footprint around the town.

"You have a look at the typical tourist and they are here to see the flora and fauna and the natural beauty," he said.

"There would be very few tourist that would come up this way to look at a mine site."

For Sue Hedditch, a resident of Gloucester for 43 years and owner of the Barrington Hideaway River Cottages, the Rocky Hill refusal and the the withdrawal of AGL's coal-seam gas projects from the region lead to a "boom time" for tourism in the region.

"I think the approval of those projects would have been detrimental to tourism in Gloucester," she said.

"Tourism has always been the way of the future for Gloucester."

Sue Hedditch, a resident of Gloucester for 43 years, at her Barrington Hideaway River Cottages. Picture: Simone De Peak

Having owned the river cottages for more than a decade, and previously volunteered at the visitor information centre, Ms Hedditch said she has seen a growth in tourism over the last five years.

While that growth can be, in part, credited to the COVID-inspired getaways, Ms Hedditch said the industry is "keeping Gloucester alive".

"We have so many people coming to town which feeds into benefits for hospitality venues in the main street and places like the laundromat," she said.

"If little country towns don't have people coming in spending money they tend to die."

At the beginning of 2021, the Mid Coast council launched a tourism marketing campaign under a new destination brand the "Barrington Coast".

The initiative saw MidCoast Council take home top prize in the Local Government Award for Tourism category and silver in the Tourism Marketing and Campaigns category at this year's NSW Tourism Awards.

Ms Hedditch said the initiative has promoted a growth in tourism innovation around Gloucester.

"We have seen the development of Barrington Bike Park, a great deal of eco tourism and a growing interest for things like breweries," she said.

"I don't think Gloucester could be the tourist destination it is if we went down the road of mining and coal-seam gas."

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Dive Deeper:
Angst over controversial Royalties for Rejuvenation fund, but critics say it's "spit in the ocean" for coal communities
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The initiative outside of Norton is called Project Intersection and strives to combine reclamation efforts with economic development. The planting…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
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Get all your news in one place