REINVIGORATED: New president on Jacaranda’s turning point
DRESSED in a handmade costume, Nicholas Buckler’s first memory of the floral festival that now permeates his daily life is before he started school, running along to Party for a Princess with his sister.
He grew up, like so many Grafton kids, with the festival in tow, moving on from the children’s morning to wreaking havoc at Jaca Thursday with school friends, not expecting his town’s adored tradition would soon become his own passion.
Three years ago, the now 29-year-old’s decision to attend a public meeting in the hope getting involved in the community would boost his profile as a real estate agent was the beginning of what would become an essential role in resurrecting an 85-year-old tradition.
“I got given a job on the spot, so I had to keep going back and haven’t missed one since,” he laughed.
Having worked his way through the ranks, Mr Buckler’s investment in the event has rapidly grown and with the decision to take on the role of president this year, he wants to lead the Jacaranda Festival to become a world-class event akin to Canberra’s Floriade and the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
“It’s a celebration of everything that’s good,” he said.
“More people like having a good time than like country music.
“Grafton needs more positivity – a lot of people can say a lot of negative things. I think it is part of living in a small county town. Grafton cops a lot of that kind of stuff but if you don’t put something into where you live, you’re never going to get anything out of it.”
Mr Buckler has seen the festival shift incrementally over time, with progressive changes bringing it back from a near-certain demise. A consultant’s report handed to the festival committee five years ago portrayed just that picture, of an event failing to keep up.
“When the report was handed down, they said you’ve got probably got three years left otherwise your festival isn’t going to exist any more,” Mr Buckler said.
“It was a blueprint of how to fix your festival.”
The 2019 extravaganza was a turning point due in no small part to the extraordinary work put in by himself and manager Mark Blackadder.
“A lot of the stuff we did last year was trial and error, sometimes you have to prove yourself before people are willing to come on board,” he said.
From rebuilding the festival’s website from scratch – with no knowledge of how to do so – to opening Volker’s Bar, which popped up at several Jacaranda events last year, including the Caringa Ball and Meet Greet Eat day, Mr Buckler’s work behind the scenes has been tireless and varied.
Now at the helm of the committee and one of the only returning faces from last year, aside from Mr Blackadder, Mr Buckler said he had a skilled team working with him to continue to grow the event.
“They always say if you’re the smartest person in the room you’re in the wrong room,” he said.
“I’m definitely not the smartest person in the room any more.”
Mr Buckler said his leadership would be different, as he wasn’t afraid to make difficult decisions.
“For the festival to be successful and to keep growing – and it nearly doubled in size last year from a financial point of view – it needs someone that is happy to play the bad guy sometimes,” he said.
He said the festival’s traditions were important, with the queen crowning a “kitsch” Grafton event that wouldn’t be going anywhere and proved a hit with international tourists.
“It’s been around long enough – 77 years this year – that it’s stood the test of time,” he said.
“It’s Grafton’s thing. Lots of places don’t have it any more.”
Targeting the South Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese tourists that made up their market was a key part of their growth strategy.
Eight months out from the first Jacaranda Festival of the decade, Mr Buckler had few details he could confirm but said there were several attractions eager to return to the spectacular he helped build.