A packed night at the Byron’s community centre on Saturday night saw the business community, along with council and state MPs, discuss the impacts of tourism on the town and its future.
And in a first for community radio station BayFM, the entire Q&A style event was broadcast live from the theatre.
Comedian Mandy Nolan, also a panelist, warmed up the crowd and displayed an overhead chart demonstrating Byron’s enormous visitor numbers compared to other NSW regional towns.
‘The graph clearly shows other tourist towns are dwarfed by Byron. Outside of Sydney, we have the highest level of visitor numbers,’ she said, ‘and when you consider the rate paying base of Sydney as opposed to ours, we are carrying a heavy burden.’
And so it was game on. Debate was at times heated but generally constrained from both panelists and audience.
MC Mick O’Regan set the tone for the evening by saying, ‘There are many who are telling me that what is happening in Byron Bay is a privatisation of benefit and a socialisation of cost.’
All panelists agreed that this year’s NYE caught organisers (Council, the business community and police) by surprise.
Publican and businessman Tom Mooney said he understood that sales were down for most of the liquor outlets. ‘Maybe young people, say under 30, are a little sick of paying $120 for a ticket into a licensed venue?’ he said. ‘Maybe they don’t want to pay $15 a drink.’ He said part of the problem is NYE crowds needed direction, and that venues offer greater safety than celebrating on the beach. ‘All it would take is a big night with big seas and people could have drowned.’
Byron United (chamber of commerce) president Paul Waters again came under pressure to explain his comments over new years eve. MC Mick O’Regan asked what he meant by ‘if you don’t like tourism, then move to Lismore,’ to which Mr Waters said it was taken out context by the journalist. Predictably he rejected police recommendations to close drinking venues earlier, claiming it would create more problems if hundreds of people were ejected from, say the Beach Hotel, all at once.
While a very worthy debate, and hopefully just the start of a wider conversation, there unfortunately very little said that was ‘actionable’. Reduced interest loan grants to assist Council from the state government was at one time mentioned by Don Page, who is Ballina MP and minister for the north coast and local government. He added that Council had yet to make an application for them. Generally, however, Mr Page appeared to be the least passionate of the panelists in finding solutions. He played down what assistance his government could provide, despite being in office and a local resident.
He was at odds over the legalities of holiday letting, saying he considered it legal, to which Greens MP Jan Barham argued that it wasn’t because the government’s LEP (Local Environment Plan) clearly said it isn’t. She claimed there were over 600 houses being holiday let, which has led to an erosion of community.
Mayor Simon Richardson said that suggestions by police to improve the CBD’s lighting and moving the taxi rank had been worked on by Council staff and would be tabled in coming months. He added that his priority would be to address that before considering CCTV, despite it being given support by Council. State or federal government funding on CCTV is yet to be sought. At the forum’s conclusion, Mandy Nolan announced that on Thursday February 7, another community forum would be held at the community centre which aims to establish a united association called ‘Our Community’, to be chaired – in the interim – by realtor and Writers’ fest chair Chris Hanley.
The Echo asked federal Richmond MP Justine Elliot what funding assistance the town could be given – or indeed currently gives – but her office did not reply on Friday prior to Monday’s public holiday.