It was an emotionally charged five hours yesterday afternoon as community and business members addressed a panel from the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) over Dan Murphy’s plans for a large-scale booze outlet on Jonson Street.
Held in the Byron Bay Community Centre, around 80 people attended, and it was a chance for the panel to hear community concerns, but it also gave an opportunity for representatives from the Woolworths-owned liquor retailer to demonstrate why Byron Bay needed yet another liquor outlet.
Community members, including young people personally affected by alcohol abuse, addressed the meeting. And Greens mayoral candidate Simon Richardson made an impassioned plea.
Plans are already under way for the store, with council approval, and the one last hurdle for the Woolworths subsidiary is to convince the OLGR that their licence should be granted for the town. It is planned to be located underneath the current Dendy cinema.
One of the three reps that first addressed the crowd was general manager of the company, Martin Smith. He spoke lovingly of Dan Murphy’s humble beginnings in Melbourne, and proudly spoke of Woolworths’ acquisition in 1998 and subsequent expansion to its present-day operations of 163 national stores. Via overhead projector, large images of their stores, which appeared somewhat advertorial, swept past as he tried to dispel any perception that they didn’t take responsible service of alcohol seriously. ‘We provide a pathway of exploration and discovery,’ he said, referring to the wide range of wines they stock from around the world. ‘We have the lowest prices but the widest range,’ was another line. ‘We are proud of our responsible service in diverse communities around Australia.’ Despite an endearing Scottish accent and obvious sincerity, his attempts to sway anyone in the audience failed as his presentation ended in silence.
The next presentation wasn’t received any better, but gave the line of argument via large overhead graphs that alcohol consumption in Australia has declined; that Dan Murphy’s stores which opened in other towns have not led to indicated higher crime rates… and so on. The main thrust was: hey, the other operators in town may see a drop in sales, but there will not be an overall increase in consumption. Much was made of Byron’s unique tourism appeal, but as for community involvement, it was only announced that Dan Murphy’s participate with all liquor accords and is sponsoring the Byron Film Festival.
The soft parade
And so began the parade: one after another, all walks of community life gave a six-minute passionate speech against allowing more accessibility to booze into the town.
Those opposed were not only residents, but were aspiring mayors and councillors, the Byron Bay High School counsellor, the former deputy principal of Mullumbimby High School, the reverend from the nearby Anglican church, a town planner, a police superintendent, the Byron Youth Service, as well as competing liquor outlets and hotel operators.
The message could not have been clearer: alcohol is major problem in this small town and it is affected by staggering tourist numbers. Only the first speaker was in favour, the Eagle Boys Pizza owner – of two years – who operates in the same vicinity. He claimed that as a neighbouring business, revitalising the precinct would address it as a crime hotspot. ‘I don’t let my younger staff out after dark,’ he said, explaining some instances where staff have felt unsafe. ‘The place has turned into a slum.’
Mayoral candidate blasts Dan
A highlight was mayoral candidate Simon Richardson, who blasted the Dan Murphy’s reps much to the applause of the audience. ‘First of all, the scale is grotesque,’ he began. ‘This is our main street. And the idea is to put a classless liquor supermarket on our main street. If you walk up and down the street you will see very few chain [stores] and very few large shops. In fact it would be the second biggest in size behind the supermarket. It’s completely out of keeping with a small town’s main street. The windows in the DA were all going to be covered in with advertising. All I saw [in the DA] was an ugly building with a big face on it. It’s going to be on our main street. It’s not like a Bunnings, which is ten kilometres out of town. It’s right in the heart of town. ‘We’ve heard that this is a destination outlet, that people travel to go to this outlet. If that’s the case, go to the industrial estate. The only reason you are suggesting Jonson Street is because of the tourists… you’re relying on foot traffic. You can’t have it both ways.
‘I know the Chapel Street store in Melbourne and I think Dan Murphy would be turning in his grave to be honest…
‘It’s also against Byron Council’s Liquor and Approval Policy: 2.5 under location. We do not want liquor licensing within 100 metres of schools, childcare, places of worship or residential areas. All of those things occur within 100 metres of the proposed site.
‘Employment needs to be talked about… Does anyone actually believe there will be 20 full-time jobs? And 15 part-time jobs? If we walked into Woolies we wouldn’t see 20 people working full time there. How much alcohol are you going to be selling?
‘There’s been a suggestion as to what the visitors want. Can I suggest that what the visitors want is a thriving healthy community? They are not here [just] for the beaches and hinterland, because there’s hinterland and beaches on the Gold Coast. What they’re here for is a slightly unique experience. This a special place, so stop exploiting us. Visitors come here ’cause they don’t want McDonald’s, they don’t want KFC and they don’t want a Dan Murphy’s ’cause there’re 150 others around the country…
‘The biggest disappointment I found in this submission was there was not one mention of community, there was not one mention of the people who live here – except the promise of jobs. Our young people want to be able to walk up and down the street without alcohol dominating the streets. Our visitors want an experience that is unique, so please, leave us alone!’
Younger gen speak
Other moving speeches came from the younger generation. Twenty-year-old Phoebe struggled through tears to make the point that, as a young person growing up in the town, she has seen the devastating affects that binge-drinking has on the young. But it was 15-year-old Haley who put it context. She told the panel she often gets approached on the streets by spruikers of local bars in the town with offers and promotions. And even more revealing was that backpackers often approach her and her friends, offering to buy them drinks if they pay a little more so the backpacker can make some extra money.
‘I know 13-year-olds that regularly drink,’ she says. ‘It’s all very sick.’
The last submission was from a cafe owner across the road from the proposed site, who said that he regularly picks up broken bottles and cleans vomit and faeces from the area. ‘While this decision may improve my business, it is not moral or ethical,’ he said.
After it was all done, the panel asked Dan Murphy’s representatives to explain how their store would benefit the community. Points raised were: problems with secondary supply, location, and irrefutably high alcohol-related crime incidents.
To a stunned silent crowd, a Dan Murphy’s rep admitted that they were there to make money.
‘We are a public company and are here to make money. I freely admit it.’
But it was Dan Murphy’s legal counsel, Mr Shwartz, who attempted to cast a spell contradicting the entire mood of the evening.
He said while all things that were said here tonight were ‘touching’, he dismissed the evening as ‘not representative of the true majority of the community’. He claimed that most people drink responsibly and if they didn’t, ‘this place wouldn’t exist’.
‘Why can’t we stand up and say something for the majority of the people? Why aren’t the people who drink responsibly entitled to choice and first-class service like they have in Lismore or Ballina? Why hasn’t anyone told us the world ended when Dan Muphy’s opened in Ballina or Lismore? Would we really be running 160-odd stores if we weren’t doing it properly? Or if it caused damage to the communities?’
It appeared Mr Shwartz had not listened to anyone for the entire evening. Earlier comments by most of the community members described Byron Bay as ‘unique’. Even police superintendent Jago said the place was ‘different’.
The gap between Dan Murphy’s brand ambassadors and the people in that room could not have been wider.
The panel said they are expected to make a decision in a month.