Sleepy hollow or Gerry town: the battle for Nagambie and rural Victoria

If Gerry Ryan has his way, the once sleepy, lakeside main street of Nagambie will soon be partly remade as a maze of statues honouring the country’s most famous racehorses.

Ryan, who made his fortune manufacturing Jayco caravans in Dandenong then parlayed it into a sporting, hospitality and tourism empire, has already, by some reckoning, “saved” his adopted home town 120 kilometres north of Melbourne since he moved there to “semi-retire” almost 20 years ago.

Gerry Ryan at his brewery/distillery by Lake NagambieCredit:Scott McNaughton

But his help has seemingly come with strings attached. Ryan’s passion for Nagambie is also about developing it – building tourist attractions and housing estates that have brought him and other entrepreneurial newbies into conflict with long-term locals.

Right now, development proposals with the Strathbogie shire would, if approved, double or triple the size of a village whose population has until now been more or less constant for decades.

The Thoroughbred Champions Park is the idea of another relative newcomer to the area, Rick Jamieson, an ally of Ryan and the founder of party supply company Harry the Hirer and famed breeder of Black Caviar. Jamieson says that, if supported by the state government, the 13 racehorse statues will become Victoria’s top regional tourist attraction.

That would mean yet more customers to the nearby motel, brewery and cafe that Ryan has refurbished or opened, and to his nearby Mitchelton winery and hotel, as well as potential buyers for housing projects he has under way.

An artist’s impression of The Champions Park

Little surprise, then, that he supports the idea. “I think it’s a great initiative and I have said I would contribute to it,” Ryan tells The Age.

Yet the very idea of giving over the heart of this historic town to 13 statues honouring the horse racing industry has been met with a scathing response from some among an older Nagambie cohort, who see it as a tacky tourist stunt.

According to them, it typifies the ideas of cashed-up blow-ins and Johnny-come-latelies who have seized control of the town and its future.

Some long-term residents are especially concerned about the housing developments that are following the hike in tourist interest. Disputes have flared over the plight of hundreds of trees earmarked for removal to make way for this “progress”.

Rhonda Robinson, a long-time hay, wheat and canola farmer whose family crops about 1200 hectares just south of Nagambie, is just one of the locals concerned for her home town and the farms and environment around it.

“Nagambie has been a little hidden gem for a long time,” says Robinson who is also the local National Party treasurer. “Tourism has really gone ahead and that’s fine, but at the same time we don’t want to lose our farmland and the things that we love about Nagambie.”

Now, in a COVID-19 world where city folk are working remotely and scrambling to the bush and coast, the pressure is mounting on sweet rural outposts within striking distance of Melbourne. The long ebb of rural population to the city has finally turned and the battle is on for the heart of Nagambie, a case study in the challenges of managing a level of regional growth unforeseen and unplanned for.

Back in the day

Nagambie is not in the Western District, the domain of the old Victorian squattocracy. But it is the home of old farming families and an oasis for those who never tire of the mild climate, the backdrop of the Strathbogie Ranges and how the grey of Melbourne gives way to big blue skies as you descend from the Great Dividing Range towards town. (Some newcomers prefer to helicopter in).

High Street, NagambieCredit:Scott McNaughton

It is one of best-watered locales in the vast dry of Victoria’s north, courtesy of the Goulburn River and Lake Nagambie along which the main street runs, a waterway that is always full because of the Goulburn Weir constructed in the late 1800s.

Like most regional towns, Nagambie reeled in the 2000s from the consolidation and corporatisation of farms, the aftermath of the Kennett government’s closure of council services in the 1990s, and the disappearance of local bank branches.

Some feared the town could slowly wither and die when it was bypassed by the realigning of the Goulburn Valley Highway in 2013.

Local MP and Nationals deputy leader Steph Ryan, [no relation of Gerry] says the bypass actually proved a blessing because it helped preserve the character of the town. “People are now flocking to Nagambie as a destination, not just stopping for a vanilla slice as they pass through.”

Melburnians have twigged to its proximity, its climate, the lakeside aspect, its rustic Victorian-era main drag, its elegant homesteads with tree lined entrances, good food and historic wineries such as Tahbilk.

When visitors come to stay in a place like Nagambie, inevitably they ponder what it would be like to live there – more now than ever after Melbourne’s interminable COVID-19 lockdowns. And Naggas, as locals like to call it, is booming.

The shire is planning for the population to more than double to 4000 people by 2036. Developers and local business leaders insist the growth will be even greater given COVID-19.

The arrival of ‘Gerry’

If there is one thing that Nagambians agree on, it’s the profound impact of one man.

Gerry Ryan is a self-described “Melbourne-boy” and friend of premiers and politicians and other business figures such as trucking tycoon Lindsay Fox – an old-fashioned entrepreneur who makes things happen.

In the early 2000s he was looking for a place to semi-retire as he grew interested in horse-breeding and saw that Nagambie was a strong thoroughbred region.

Ryan bought the historic property Limerick Lane, but rather than retire, he accepted an invitation from then premier John Brumby to redevelop a down-at-heel caravan park on the west side of Lake Nagambie. It is now known as the Nagambie Lakes Leisure Park.

He then bought and revamped what he describes as the “iconic” but “a bit unloved” Mitchelton winery on the Goulburn River, added a hotel and transformed it into a major foodie getaway destination.

Mitchelton winery and hotelCredit:David Hannah/Visit Victoria

Soon after, Ryan claimed a significant stretch of the town’s High Street, refurbishing or opening a motel, a cafe and a brewery/distillery and in the process helping to reorient the street to the lake. Then, in perhaps his most audacious move, Ryan opened a satellite Jayco factory on the eastern edge of town.

Ryan — everyone calls him “Gerry” — says he has poured $100 million into Nagambie and now employs 300 people there.

“I went up to Nagambie to retire, but I saw the need and the opportunities to grow the town and that’s what I’ve done,” noting he could have done better financially by investing in Melbourne.

“GoNagambie”

There is no shortage of people — politicos, business owners and residents — who say Ryan’s arrival has been a boon. In the years after the highway bypass, he was one of the few willing to put his money where his mouth was.

“Someone like Gerry coming along and investing in the areas has kicked a lot of people along,” says Jamieson, who says the local horse industry is booming along with wine and tourism and the area is now the number-one horse breeding region in Victoria.

Ryan’s extraordinary investment in the bricks and mortar of the town has also come with increasing influence in local and state politics.

He is renowned as a savvy political operator, an affable man of humble origins affectionately described to The Age as a “knockabout bloke” by an Andrews government minister. Like Lindsay Fox, Ryan says he is “non-political” but makes a point of also being mates with people such as Daniel Andrews.

He also has a history of pragmatic political patronage.

Yulong Stud near Nagambie Credit:Jason South

Now living and doing business in rural Victoria, he has financially supported the National Party and especially Euroa MP Steph Ryan, contributing $15,000 over the past two elections.

Ryan was also among a coterie of Nagambie newcomers and like-minded business figures who took control of the local chamber of commerce and rebadged it “GoNagambie”.

Ex Nationals leader former deputy premier Pat McNamara in Nagambie.Credit:Scott McNaughton

The group seems to be involved in just about everything happening in the area, including taking over the only Nagambie-centred local paper, The Community Voice.

With a big injection of funds and the help of a PR firm, GoNagambie has exerted real influence on decision-making around the town’s future, especially with the local Strathbogie shire council.

It has won shire backing for the Champions Park statues, with the council in December committing to provide land, ongoing maintenance, and $250,000 for initial landscaping, pending state government support.

Lee Rowland is GoNagambie’s current president and the owner of the river and lakeside boat hire business, Go Adventure Nagambie. He says the group benefited massively from outsiders such as Ryan coming to town “passionate about growing businesses and the community”.

Pat McNamara is the former local National MP and deputy premier under Jeff Kennett. His Rowing Club is a GoNagambie member and he is a fan. Could GoNagambie have too much influence with the local council? “Not enough,” he tells The Age.

Development and theatre entrepreneur David Marriner is another business notable who has had property in the area.

“Gerry is the unofficial mayor of Nagambie,” Marriner says, chuckling. “There couldn’t be a better honorary mayor.”

Robinson, though, says that while Ryan has been “a great supporter” of the town, “it’s never good when someone has a monopoly on things”.

“At one stage Gerry had bought up so many businesses and sites in Nagambie almost overnight it made some locals a bit nervous.”

Sheep farmers Donna and James Winter-Irving live on a property fronting the south side of Lake Nagambie, one of few remaining lakeside properties not earmarked for development.

Donna says GoNagambie has effectively controlled the Strathbogie council on Nagambie-related matters in recent years, and says the business group is “not a true representation of the community identity. They will support tourism ahead of community needs”.

But it’s what follows the tourists – large-scale property developments – that is really raising hackles.

The development conundrum

From a great height, Nagambie still looks much like it always did. A one-street town by a picturesque lake, home to a population barely changed through decades. But viewed on a council planning map, the ‘old’ Nagambie is about to be encircled and dwarfed by huge housing estates.

While Ryan was investing in the old town, he was also acquiring vast tracts of farmland to its north and east that one day will be homes. His first attempt at addressing what he describes as an “acute housing shortage” in the area has been controversial.

Just north of the main street, Ryan is building Waterways Nagambie, a gated estate of 150 “relocatable homes” on small land allotments targeted at over-55 retirees.

Waterways Lifestyle Village in NagambieCredit:Scott McNaughton

For about $300,000 you get the Jayco-manufactured building only, not the land. If purchasers are eligible, government rent assistance can help with the cost of leasing the plot. Local detractors have labelled the village “Gerry’s trailer trash park” and “Gerry’s chook shed”.

“It’s horrendous,” says long-time local David Maddocks, who is currently involved in multiple campaigns against developments that, he says, are damaging the environment in the area.

Other out-of-town developers have followed Ryan into Nagambie, including Andrew Facey, the head of Parklea, a company best known for transforming the fertile paddocks of West Gippsland into suburbs such as Pakenham.

In 2015, Facey bought a homestead and farm known as Box Grove, north of town, and wants to develop part of the property. He has since bought adjoining farm properties also. He now faces community opposition to a scheme that would involve the removal of 68 large trees including old river red gums.

Protest sign at Kirwans Bridge near Nagambie

In a written statement he stresses his farming rather than development credentials – including in West Gippsland – and says he bought the adjoining properties to “enhance” existing farming. But last year Facey told the regional newspaper, The Shepparton News that if Nagambie didn’t develop it would “die”.

Facey has also riled locals with his plan for a caravan/tourist park on the site of a former winery in the bucolic, riverside paddocks near the heritage-listed Kirwans Bridge. There, he has ripped out grapevines to make way for tourist cabins and camping. Hundreds have signed a petition against the project.

After the council refused planning permission, citing the fragility of the local environment, Facey took the project to the planning appeals tribunal which will decide the matter.

At the Elloura estate on the southern edge of Lake Nagambie another Melbourne-based developer, Hallmarc, is also battling locals including Winter-Irving and Robinson, intent on saving 51 trees from being removed for a 230-home affordable “lifestyle village” for locals and Melburnians.

After intervention by Planning Minister Richard Wynne to stop the axing of the trees, Hallmarc is now challenging Wynne in the Supreme Court and notes that more than 160 trees will be preserved on the property.

Hallmarc chief executive Michael Loccisano says that without development Nagambie would “go backwards” like many other country towns. If we didn’t do what we’re doing you wouldn’t get the good stuff happening in the main street and everyone would suffer from that. It’s the chicken and egg.”

Winter-Irving is determined the trees will be saved. “We’re trying to look after our community, our heritage and our environment. It’s unique.”

Not surprisingly, developers have seized on the COVID-19 tree change flight to the bush to press for fast-tracking of planning approvals. Gerry Ryan says cashed-up Melburnians are pricing locals out of the housing market.

Donna Winter-Irving and fellow Nagambie residents. Credit:Justin McManus

“If suddenly, there’s real estate and lots more houses available, the price will be driven down.”

But Maddocks queries the population forecasts, which he says are being used to justify unnecessary planning approvals that enhance developer land values.

“I’m at a bit of a loss as to why there’s this perceived demand. Supply of housing sites is actually outstripping the need by a long shot.”

Steph Ryan says that after COVID-19 and mental health issues, lack of housing is the biggest issue in her electorate. “It’s a big problem on the cusp of being a crisis,” she says.

‘The worst of suburbia’

Indisputably, rural Victoria is under pressure and the Andrews government and opposition are highly aware of the political risks of not responding.

Richard Wynne would not be interviewed for this story but said in a statement he is helping rural councils “fast-track planning” to deliver more residential land, and is “investigating mechanisms to encourage private rental investment”.

The challenge then becomes how to accommodate growing populations without destroying the very things that make towns such as Nagambie destinations in the first place.

“We don’t want developers to come to the regions and suburbanise our rural towns, pushing out trees and replacing them with bitumen and concrete,” says Robinson.

Strathbogie mayor Laura Banks says it’s time for a “well overdue” state review of planning rules for rural housing to avoid the worst of suburbia in the bush.

“We need a housing model that works in our rural area – not just a repeat of urban development,” she says.

Nagambie will also need a big boost in infrastructure and services. Even with its current population, it is plagued with problems including poor telephone, internet and electricity connectivity. Just this week it suffered the latest in a string of power blackouts.

“We’ve got huge pressure on kindergartens and primary schools,” Banks also notes.

Meanwhile, Jamieson and Ryan and GoNagambie are waiting to see if the state government will help fund the council-backed Champions Park.

Ryan acknowledges that, like any country community, some Nagambie locals are “a bit sceptical” of outsiders “coming into town” with energy and ideas, like 13 racehorse statues in the main street.

“But I think they’re growing to appreciate what Nagambie is about,” he says.

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