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Will the Bay Chamber AGM see Council take control

Wednesday the 7th of August might well be turning point in the destiny of Batemans Bay with the AGM of the Batemans Bay Chamber of Commerce and Tourism.

Meeting at 6pm on the first Wednesday of every month the Chamber has a solid and growing membership, advocating on behalf of Batemans Bay businesses to each level of Government and various Government instrumentalities and organisations. The Chamber also runs two annual events:  Sculpture For Clyde- which also sources world class outdoor sculptures for the Batemans Bay Sculpture Walk and the Batemans Bay Paddle Challenge. As many in the community have become aware the relationship between the Chamber and Council has become strained in recent years. The Chamber, under the presidency of David Maclachlan, has been quite vocal in the media over their concerns around the future of Batemans Bay CBD and the financial repercussions of decisions being made by Eurobodalla Council that have the potential to impact on businesses, employment and private sector growth. To best give an overview of those concerns the Presidents Report, to be delivered to the AGM next Wednesday follows. All members of the Chamber now have a copy of this report that comes from the heart and core of the most vibrant, pro-active, influential group in the town that represents the investors, the employers, the real estate owners, the diversity of trades and services found in the CBD and the many smaller enterprises that make the CBD whole. In his report out-going President David Maclachlan offers an insight into the Chamber, its functions, its hurdles and its hopes for the future.

As my Presidency of three years comes to an end, I present this overview.

The Chamber Executive for the first two years focused on advocacy which was based on our evidence based strategic plans. Most activity centred around encouraging business development, tourism business development, event strategy and seeding events.

The executive believes the main achievements of the Chamber have been to refocus attention on Batemans Bay as a designated regional commercial centre and tourism hub. The recent investment and activity by each level of government has been welcomed.

Private investment and support for a fragile business sector is still wanting. The challenging economic statistics such as employment, lack of growth and demographic issues represent a challenge to each level of government, while defining Chambers advocacy.

The past three years has seen Council increase marginalising the Chamber, which has been particularly difficult for the Chamber executive.

I would like to thank the Chamber executive of the last year in particular, they have made decisions in the best interest of the Shire and Chamber while under undue pressure. For the past year the Chamber has been fortunate to attract a strong and diverse executive with impeccable skills. The group comprises the largest private employer and largest accommodation provider in the Shire, a member with national board experience, a member with long term real estate experience and experience with other Chambers, a former Chamber president and large Shire wide employer, An architect with Council planning experience from another Shire and a retailer. It has been a pleasure to work with such a broad skill based executive — Thank You.

My resignation from Council's MacKay Park Sunset Committee and public criticism of capacity, relevance, expertise and process surrounding the Mackay Park development precipitated criticism by the Mayor and attracted the wrath of Council. A letter to the Mayor to consider a Batemans Bay business group proposal of buying the old Bowling Club Site and developing an events centre, regional gallery and regional museum with greater capacity than the proposed Mackay Park centre and at no operational cost to the ratepayer was met with a no thank you letter only.

My public comments on the Mackay Park development, Batemans Bay CBD and Foreshore not having a vision strategy, masterplan or place making strategy when this was promoted by Council after the last election 3 years prior, has also drawn Councils criticism, though a strategy has now been undertaken. Unfortunately, implementation will be directed by a compromised department which experience shows has been instructed who to engage with and who not to engage with — this is not a genuine stakeholder supported process.

My criticism of Councils event strategies has caused issues, especially after Council wrote a new event strategy only to discard it and propose the current strategy.

Council has since, not been supportive of the Sculpture for Clyde event and Sculpture Walk which I created. Council requirements forced much of the event out of the Shire. A recent motion within Council about the running of this non-Council event saw no consultation with myself and organisers. This defeats any notion that Councils event strategy and practices are inclusive in nature or serve the better interest of the Shire.

Issues with Council came to a head with the Mayor offering mediation with the Chamber Executive in December 2018, which we promptly welcomed and agreed, only to receive a letter 6 months later suggesting we defer the mediation until after the our AGM.

Business and Tourism is not driving any strategy within Council since both the Tourism Advisory Committee and the Business Advisory Committee were abolished by the Mayor without proper replacement. Myself and the Chamber have been actively marginalised by the Tourism and Events unit now for over a year, as have other major tourism operators and investors in the Shire. The tourism industry has no direct input let alone oversight of the now compromised Destination Management Plan, which in three years has only produced a non-industry driven brand with no capacity building.

The oversight and general meddling with the tourism and events unit and disconnect with industry was highlighted at a recent Tourism Update meeting. The mayor cited a massive increase in tourism visitation in 2018 and attributed this to Council staff. The mayor also cited a massive increase in private investment. The tourism industry did not experience these increases and there was no business correlation to the presented visitation data. Industry knows full well that figures presented were taken from a small data set that had no bearing on business, in fact many believe the figures presented were misleading which is evidenced by the Mackelar report.

Industry is also aware that in 2018 unemployment increased and our Gross Regional Product was negative. These robust figures which can be viewed on Councils website contradict Council tourism claims as they show a reduction in investment, no growth, a reduction in spending and unemployment trending up to almost three times the state average. Council has had no new tourism promotional program for 3 years yet self praised its achievement of increasing tourism numbers. Industry is embarrassed by this spin.

The restructure and repositioning of Councils Tourism, Events and Business units down the hierarchy into the planning department has further alienated what should be a local industry driven activity. The clear conflict of interest between entrepreneurial activity and regulatory department activity only furthers the perceived disconnect with industry. A planning department cannot and has not build business confidence, especially in Tourism.

Council needs to listen to an industry group or the Chamber without fear or need for retribution. To date Council has not produced the outcomes needed by tourism and business. Direct investment in an industry group would save ratepayers from Councils tourism costs and help ensure a return on investment.

As President I take advocacy seriously and have learnt that within a small Shire where every business is in some way connected or dependent on Council, then advocacy has its limitations. In the media we see many publicly lobbied positions which have attracted Councils wrath rather than genuine dialogue and inclusion.

In January this year I decided to resign from the Chamber Presidency and recently considered the same for the Sculpture for Clyde event. I have been marginalised to the point that while advocacy at a state and federal level was met with excellent relationships, my presidency has been voided where possible by Council.

I submitted my resignation to the executive in January, as did more than half the executive, as treatment from Council was excessive. At this time we needed legal and insurance advise when dealing with Council. After discussion about the future of the Chamber we decided to withdraw resignations and continue to the AGM.

Should the future Chamber Executive decide to not have Council as a member, I would hope that members support this action. Councils single membership has seen both Councillors and Council staff turn up without notice to meetings and have too often interrupted guest speakers in order to lobby Councils position. Chamber should never be Councils proxy. Businesses' have a legitimate fear of Council which needs to be overcome.

It is now time for a new president and executive who may wish to take the Chamber on a different path. I have no doubt that Council will support a new president and executive. ******************************************************* The AGM, to be held at the Batemans Bay Soldiers Club will see a contingent of Council staff and the Mayor attend. It will be interesting to see what influences they have in the election of new officers.

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