Pyrenees Shire Council mayor Damian Ferrari ready for challenges | The Courier


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After a year of strife, Pyrenees Shire Council is aiming to get back on track with its new council. Bushfires and COVID-19 have had a massive effect on the rural shire, and new mayor, Cr Damian Ferrari, is keen to get stuck in. A serving police officer – a senior sergeant, he’s the station commander in Ararat – Cr Ferrari first joined council in a by-election for the Beaufort Ward two years ago, and put his hand up to take on the mayoral role when re-elected last year. READ MORE: New Pyrenees Shire mayor elected unopposed The main challenge, he said, is leading a recovery from the pandemic, which impacted businesses and events across the shire. “That’s hit us in so many ways,” he said. “We have to get people back to work, projects have stalled or have been held up. “We have to build some confidence back in the community and businesses to say you’re not on your own, the council is there for you.” He sees council’s role as a “facilitator to make things happen” – so far council has waived several fees and some rates, but the organisation needs to remain sustainable. One particular aspect in the recovery is tourism, and promoting Pyrenees’ world-class wineries to bring back visitors. READ OUR SERIES ON THE REGION’S NEW MAYORS The combination of COVID wiping out domestic and international tourism, and concerns about Chinese exports, has made life difficult for producers, and the effects have flowed on to suppliers and accommodation providers. “We’ve got a bit of work to do to try and get them back here, and to keep the sustainability, to keep them coming,” Cr Ferrari said. “The wineries are a massive part of our tourism, but there’s a whole bigger picture in the Pyrenees municipality that people can come to see – we’ve got Mount Cole, the lakes, the forests, the steam rally, every little town tells a story.” The shire has one of the state’s smallest population densities, at just two people per square kilometre – at the last count, just 7353 people live in the shire. Like many rural shires, this presents challenges for rates and keeping infrastructure up to scratch. However, Pyrenees Shire isn’t facing the same growth challenges in towns like Beaufort and Avoca as its neighbours in Golden Plains or Moorabool, or particularly Ballarat. “We’re seeing some growth but I don’t think you’d call it a pressure at this stage,” Cr Ferrari said. “That’s good because it means if we can grow like that we can have our infrastructure grow with it. “Certainly we’re seeing a bit, no question – the bigger towns within the Pyrenees municipality, they’re experiencing the most growth, or the most consistency in sales, and houses selling. “I don’t think we’re going to see, in our municipality, the sort of rush of growth Ballarat has, and that must be very difficult to manage because it’s going up so quickly, and happening so fast. “All the stuff behind the scenes, infrastructure and roads and water, they must be very difficult to keep up with.” Improving revenue sources will be another challenge – Cr Ferrari noted rates made up about 49 per cent of the council’s expenditure in the last year. One example is the Rainbow Serpent Festival, which brings tens of thousands of people to the area and has several community grant programs. An event like that doesn’t “fall on your doorstep every five minutes,” Cr Ferrari said, which is why it was so devastating that the 2020 event was first postponed from bushfires racing through its site in Lexton, then being cancelled altogether by the pandemic. “With Rainbow Serpent, there’s mixed feelings about that, granted, but it did put a lot of money into the community, and that’s certainly missed,” Cr Ferrari said. “We’ve got to find a fair bit of money, and we have to be smart how we do this. We have to do it in ways the community accepts.” He added fire recovery work in Lexton is still ongoing, more than 12 months later. The new council is working on its four-year plan, following the new regulations in Victoria’s Local Government Act. IN THE NEWS There will be more community consultation, in-person and online, which Cr Ferrari said is a positive for all residents. “We need to have them on board and get some ideas on which way they want to go for the future,” he said. “It’s a big step and a big change, but I think it’s a really exciting change. “You find, when you have community meetings, you might cop some curly questions but people come up with some really fantastic ideas, and you think gee I’m glad I had that conversation, they bring up things that you wouldn’t have come up with yourself.” “Ultimately, that’s who we are working for and working with.” WHY RUN FOR COUNCIL? I’ve been in local government for two years, this is my third. I only did half a term last time because it was a by-election. Outside of council I’m a police officer, station commander at Ararat, I’ve been doing that for 36 years, and I’ve got a farm up the road where I live – a bit of peace and quiet out there. In the last 10 years, I’ve wanted to have a go at local government. I’ve worked in a lot of different locations and done a lot of jobs with councils, so I really wanted to come back to my home town (in Beaufort), get on council and give something back to my home town I’ve lived here all my life, born and bred here To have a go at mayor, I think that’s what you’d aspire to if you were a councillor, and hopefully, as mayor, you can influence some more positive change and get some better things for the community. GROWTH We’re seeing some growth but I don’t think you’d call it a pressure at this stage. That’s good because it means if we can grow like that we can have our infrastructure grow with it. Certainly we’re seeing a bit, no question. The bigger towns within the Pyrenees municipality, they’re experiencing the most growth, or the most consistency in sales, and houses selling. I don’t think we’re going to see, in our municipality, the sort of rush of growth Ballarat has, and that must be very difficult to manage because it’s going up so quickly, and happening so fast. All the stuff behind the scenes, infrastructure and roads and water, they must be very difficult to keep up with. DISASTERS I think firstly, as a small rural council, we have a big footprint, and we’re constantly looking for additional money and funding to support our rate base. Our rates make up about 49 per cent of our total expenditure for the year, so we’ve got to find a fair bit of money, and we have to be smart how we do this. We have to do it in ways the community accepts. With Rainbow Serpent, there’s mixed feelings about that, granted, but it did put a lot of money into the community, and that’s certainly missed. Events like that, they don’t fall on your doorstep every five minutes. The fires were fairly devastating, we’re still doing some recovery work in relation to the fires. Then COVID hit – I think we’ve managed it fairly well, I genuinely do feel that, but we’ve had to take a big hit. We rely so heavily on tourism, and people’s freedom of movement, especially tourism, has been hit, so our businesses have taken a big hit. I think it’s rebuilding already. A lot of those businesses are very resilient, they’ve had to be. A lot were started from scratch and built themselves up, so along the way they’ve acquired a lot of resilience and they’re good at moving forward. The wineries and a lot of associated businesses, cafes and accommodation and eateries. They’ve taken a hit with COVID but we’ve seen people were keen to get out of the metro areas when restrictions were lifted. TOURISM We’ve got a bit of work to do to try and get them back here, and to keep the sustainability, to keep them coming. The wineries are a massive part of our tourism, but there’s a whole bigger picture in the Pyrenees municipality that people can come to see – we’ve got Mount Cole, the lakes, the forests, the steam rally. Every little town tells a story, I encourage people to come out and enjoy the wineries, and enjoy the bigger picture as well. TURBINES Every project, especially of that size, has to be taken on its merits. You can’t just rely on what happened last time, or what worked or didn’t. We’re certainly open to it, but I know there are some mixed feelings around the wind farms, but certainly they do generate a lot of money into the local council and the town. They put in around $300,000 to the community through grants – that doesn’t excuse anything if they’re doing anything wrong but it’s a good gesture and the community can make the most of that. COUNCIL PLAN We’re working on the plan at the moment. One of our biggest priorities now, there’s been a significant change in the local government act from last year. That means we’ve got to heavily consult with the community to develop our plans for the future, including the next 10 years. I think that’s a great thing, because ultimately, that’s who we are working for and working with. We need to have them on board and get some ideas on which way they want to go for the future. It’s a big step and a big change but I think it’s a really exciting change. I know all the councillors are on board with it. We’re doing some engagement, community surveys, there’s a card, and they can get online to put their ideas forward. You find, when you have community meetings, you might cop some curly questions but people come up with some really fantastic ideas, and you think gee I’m glad I had that conversation, they bring up things that you wouldn’t have come up with yourself. CHALLENGES I’ve had this conversation with councillors and the chief executive, as mayor for this term, what I’d like to see is the recovery from COVID. That’s hit us in so many ways. We have to get people back to work, projects have stalled or have been held up. We need to get back on board and get those things sorted and make some progress. We have to build some confidence back in the community and businesses to say you’re not on your own, the council is there for you. We have a bit of work to do in that space with consultation and communication. So they do know we’re there and they can rely on us. Council plays a number of roles, but they can be a facilitator to make things happen. With businesses, a lot of them are masters of their own destiny, they need to move forward in their own way, but there are ways we can help them. Already we’ve waived a lot of fees and rates on some things. People are hurting and we need to do what we can to assist them, but we also have to make sure we remain sustainable as a council as well because we rely heavily on our rate base. We’ve got five councillors, single-councillor wards, and I’m finding the councillors are quite connected. I’m not saying we agree on everything, we don’t, but i think we do things pretty professionally, sometimes we agree to disagree but we remain connected. That’s why we’ve been able to achieve some pretty good things. Each town and area’s got its own unique attractions – it’s the bigger picture, come out and see the major attractions but there are so many little gems for people to find, and that’s what we have to get out there. Have you signed up to The Courier’s variety of news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that’s happening in Ballarat.

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