Grafton's eyesores and other unfriendly infrastructure
LIFE AS I KNOW IT
HANGING around one's hometown while you are on leave gives you the opportunity to be a bit of a tourist.
You can slow down and really take a good look around, basically do what travellers do.
But unlike a visitor, the impression you are left with isn't something you are going to be able to drive away from at the end of the day.
As a resident, you have a vested interest in the lasting impressions your hometown makes on visitors, and every little thing counts in a place like Grafton.
The inland regional city is synonymous with jacaranda trees and the vast Clarence River, but, whether we like it not, also the international terrorist who gunned down and killed 51 Muslim men, women and children in New Zealand.
So how do we move forward and demonstrate how great a city whose name is now mentioned in the same breathe as a mass murderer, is to visit?
Like all big-picture planning, it can take time to achieve, but it isn't impossible. It just has to appear there is some effort being made, and fixing basic things first can help move that momentum forward.
Maybe one reason we aren't moving forward quickly enough is because there are so many of those basic things around that haven't been dealt with. Things that could make a difference between a visitor enjoying their experience or thinking WTF were they thinking before vowing never to return.
That's how I might feel if I rocked up to a historic regional city with a big river looking for its main street and some hotspots to eat. A basic routine followed by many first-time visitors.
Doing so usually involves a bit of Googling followed by some real time eye-balling to see where the crowds are congregating outdoors and enjoying the awesome weather a place like this possesses.
But it's slim pickings on this alfresco front in Grafton and when you do find the hungry hoards enjoying one of our beautifully clear sky days, you wonder why they have to do this sitting next to things like vehicle exhaust pipes and grotty council bins.
Yes, the locally crafted coffee with a fine reputation is great but sitting around the dominating presence of a double-headed garbage receptacle takes the patina off the experience.
So why not move them pronto? They aren't nuclear reactors and certainly don't lend themselves to the popular pastime of Instagramming ... "Lucky the menu is good because #councilbins #graftoneatery" isn't the kind of message we want to see on an influencer's feed.
The "but the bins were there first" argument is null and void when an operator comes along and rejuvenates an entire business strip, encouraging people to linger and relax. That is a rare beast in Grafton so any cafe that can do that on a stretch of high-vis footpath is already punching above its weight.
Encouraging more of the same scenarios creates social hubs that have a lasting effect on a city desperate to put itself on the tourist map.
A thriving business isn't just good for the people who own the business, it has a cumulative effect and can set the tone for the whole place. More businesses then piggy-back off that vibe and voila there's suddenly a scene happening.
But instead we get thriving businesses having to navigate garbage bins and idling vehicle fumes. The mind of the said tourist must boggle.
After breakfast or lunch as a tourist you might go for a wander up the main street and, well let's face it, the shopping opportunities are a little underwhelming in Grafton's main strip. In fact it's not so much a retail experience but a park and pick-up zone. You wonder how some of them survive and then see evidence of that as you count empty buildings.
Of course, it's not all doom and gloom, some stores are getting it right but they aren't helped by the kerb appeal. The concrete procession that is Prince Street showcases bins and backs of motor vehicles above anything else. This really isn't good enough for an inland city about to be cut off from the national highway by one of the most testing distances in the country.
Then there's the river-end precinct of the main strip which is literally a dead zone now the tone has been set by a funeral home.
Sure, you are free to set up shop wherever council approves but again the tourist mind must boggle when they see a building like that dedicated to those who no longer have to worry about the future of a place.
It's a tough criticism but you have to question why exciting new tourism-attracting businesses aren't eye-balling Grafton's waterfront for development potential.
Why has it become a designated hub for office space rather one that might entice travellers to come for a look and possible stay? Why isn't there a microbrewery or bar or providores or eateries or funky shops selling funky stuff closer to the riverfront, the same kind of operators you might see in other large centres? Why can't we capitalise on a river system the envy of other regional inland cities?
Newcastle CBD was struggling once, a virtual ghost town now buzzing seven days a week with cafes, creatives and forward thinking retail spaces. We already have pockets of this happening but it needs more savvy small businesses to help it gel and civic landscaping to take it to next level. There's nothing to stop this happening here on a smaller scale except for bureaucracy and a lack of imagination.
This isn't about taking personal pot shots, it's a cry for help. It's about calling out what's in front of your eyes and so far it's not promising much in the realm of making the most of what we have here.
An extraordinarily located golf course in the middle of a racecourse is going to close? Why isn't that place packed with casual swingers and bird-watching twitchers?
We can't hinge the future of an inland city on a gallery extension or a renovated Red Cross Hall that is at its best a university study nook.
Yes, these are fantastic additions to the place and encourage more stepping forward but there's a lot more that can be done as we prepare and work out what kind of regional city we want to be.
A city that prides itself on its trees, heritage buildings and a jaw-dropping river system still has one of the ugliest approaches around.
Putting the turn-off into our turn-off, the ratty parade of plantings, an abandoned petrol station now into its 12th year and an empty tourist centre isn't the kind of cluster we want welcoming curious travellers.
We all have a responsibility in fixing this, we owe it to the city and ourselves to get cracking, starting with those alfresco bins.