Enjoying a few precious minutes break in an election week is a real luxury and Lismore mayoral candidate and current Mayor Vanessa Ekins managed to fit an Echo interview in between her TAFE Auslan course and the pre-poll station on Woodlark Street.
Over on the corners of Carrington and Magellan Streets, near the newly installed ‘You Are Here’ heart in hands sculpture, there is a chance to sit and catch a breath before the day moves on.
Ekins says she spends a lot of time in town. ‘I do all my shopping there. It’s interesting how the CBD has changed lately. Now it’s more of a place for gathering and for socializing because a café life seems to have really taken off here, and the food. But we also have the markets here on Thursday afternoon where I always come to get my cheese and all the fresh produce and everything.’
I just really like doing the blocky
This is a pastime that Ekins wants to promote in the town. ‘I have heard that in the ’60s people used to do an evening promenade around the streets – all the shops were closed, but in the evening, they would dress up and do the “blocky”. It was their way of meeting and greeting and showing off a new dress and that sort of thing.
‘I’d like to bring back the blocky. I think it’s a great idea. When I come down with my kids we have dinner out and then we walk the block – we look in the windows – that’s what they’d do. They would have a look in the shop window and the display and think “I’ve got to come back the next day and get some of that”.’
Ekins is hoping to help breathe some more life into the CDB and get businesses moving again. ‘That’s what we need. We’ve done some consultation with our business community over the last few months as a council. We went to shops and said, “What would you like? What do you need?” As a result, what we’ve come up with is: events.’
Pointing to the pink and polka dot sculpture, Ekins says the town needs things like this. ’The hands are an Instagram opportunity. We need little events and reasons for people to come downtown.’
Ekins says Council is offering micro-grants to all the businesses to do something that they want to do. ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing what they come up with.
‘We’ve got the little parklets over there –, they’re so fantastic. We move those around and people use them all the time. I noticed when I first came here I’d be was pushing a pram around the streets and there was no way for me to sit with my kids in the shade unless I went into a shop and bought something, which we did. But I think it’s really important that we have spaces like this for people to see it and interact with what’s going on.’
The pandemic’s two-year term
Owing to the pandemic and two cancelled election dates, it has been a long campaign for what will be a short term – about two and a half years until we vote again. Is that enough time to do anything?
‘I’m really hoping so, so I am going to say “yes”. I am hoping there is enough time for us to get our strategies implemented,’ said Mayor Ekins.
‘We’ve been working really hard lately on our affordable housing strategy, on our waste – closing the loop on waste, on the handover of the Sleeping Lizard Hill to the Aboriginal community, and there are things that need to be implemented now. And that’s going to take us a little bit of time.’
Ekins says financial sustainability needs to be worked on as well. ‘That’s something that will take several years, so I see the next two years as a time to implement those programs, consult with our community that waste and educate our community about flooding, and do all those things.
‘I know that’s what my colleagues who are running again want to do because we’ve worked really hard on this stuff.’
Ekins says it is a bit of a worry if new people come in saying they want to change – they want to change and start asking more. ‘What do you want to change? “Oh, we want growth”, we say “What do you mean by that?” And they are, “Well, we just need business to come here”. So we say “Okay, but what are your ideas around that?” And it’s all very vague. I feel that they’re very unprepared and aren’t really aware of the constraints that Council operates under in terms of state government legislation, and the time it takes to do things.
‘An example: I thought that if we wanted affordable housing, we could just say to the developers who own the land, “We want affordable housing there”, but we can’t do that. We actually have to have a strategy adopted, that identifies the land and a percentage that can be used for affordable housing. And so that’s what we’ve done and we’ve got it we’re about to consult on the strategy. We’ve got a housing officer who says dedicated work to work on the strategy we’ve identified two blocks of land the council has, that we can build portable housing on and we’ve gone out and tendered to do that with a not-for-profit sector.
‘So it just takes a long time and we’d have to have that strategy adopted so that then all of the land that comes to us for development is required to incorporate some affordable housing. Government just works very, very slowly.
‘So I see the next two years as being a time to implement our strategies, and I really hope that we’re able to do that and convince the new council coming in, it’s worth doing and I think we’ll need some community support to encourage them to see that as well.’
What we don’t want
It’s comfortable looking towards what you do want, but Ekins says there are things she hopes don’t happen over the next term.
‘We’ve got to be careful with our budget. Like most local governments in Australia and New South Wales, we’re pretty constrained with what we can do. So we’ve got to focus on core business, like making sure our sewer infrastructure is up to date, our road network is in a working condition, that our water supply works.
‘That requires a huge investment of infrastructure and our waste management system. So we need to focus on that. So it would be, I don’t want to see people coming with grandiose plans about anything. If the plan is just “to change”, I don’t know what that means. We’ve got to be very careful with our budget.
‘We’ve got a good management team and we’ve identified what we need to do to reach financial sustainability, and that’s going to take us a few years of really careful work. So I really don’t want to see people come in and say, right, we’re gonna strip money from here and put it into something else when we’ve we’ve worked really hard on a strategy that provides services to our community.’
Steering back to the positive, the other thing Ekins is excited about is waste. ‘Closing the loop on waste is really important. At the moment, we’ve been working for some time on a waste strategy. And next year we’re going to community consultation on that.
‘What we want to do is change the way people think about waste because at the moment it’s like this. Here is a jar [shows me jar] for the sauce that I bought from the pasta guy over there. That could be recycled and just chuck it in the bin. But we want to start thinking about recycling as the very end of the pipe the very, very last thing that you do. So we’re looking at that is by setting up our revolve shop which is quite popular but in the middle of town and a repair café. And we want to do that in the CBD. And so that it’s a focal point for people – they can come and drop stuff off.
‘In our rates, we already have a “waste minimization fee”. It was traditionally raised to increase public education about recycling and stuff. Then over the last few years it has been used to give people tip vouchers. Now I don’t think giving people tip vouchers is minimizing waste. So I’d like to see that waste minimization fee go towards setting up repair cafes and things like that. So that we have it and it’s in our face. It’s something that we get used to doing fixing things rather than discarding.
‘We’re already really way ahead but we want to be the recycling centre for the region. There are business opportunities for…’
…and that’s a wrap on the interview as Mayor Ekins gets dragged off to have her photo taken with some locals, before heading off to do her ‘blocky’ and then she goes to the pre-poll.