Despite smoke still hanging heavy over the Bega Valley and Eurobodalla, along with warnings the fires may return, the Tathra Chamber of Commerce is trying to bring normality back to the region.
Chamber President Carmen Risby called the meeting at Kianninny Bush Cabins after advice from fire authorities on 2 January that all tourists leave coastal areas south of Nowra, a ban which will be lifted by the Rural Fire Service at an unknown time.
“Most businesses in areas like Tathra make 70 per cent of their income in December and January and the rest during the year,” Carmen explains. “To have tourists told to leave in the first week of January could mean that we’ll see small businesses close their doors.”
It’s clear that Carmen, who co-owns and manages Tathra Beachside Caravan Park, and those present at the meeting, are conflicted about talking about economic matters when so many people are hurting.
“It’s people first, money second,” she emphasises.
But some of the people small businesses must consider their staff, many of whom are casuals recruited to handle summer crowds, who have been stood down and are without a paycheque for the foreseeable future.
If the ban continues and tourists don’t come back, some businesses will have to ask permanent staff to use their leave to get through a summer season which calls for a skeleton staff.
“If the ban continues into the next few weeks, I’ll have to reduce the number of days we’re open,” says Tathra Hotel owner Cliff Wallis, who re-opened after the fires on Tuesday.
Many of the accommodation providers reported that all their bookings have cancelled up until Easter.
This is not the first time that the town of Tathra has wrestled with fire recovery. The 2018 fire seems close, with some accommodation providers saying they are still housing people who lost their homes in that fire.
“Even in the worst situations, there are opportunities, we’ve learnt that,” Carmen says dryly. “We’ve all been through this before, this time it’s on a larger scale and is not isolated to Tathra.”
There is some government relief for small business owners whose income has been adversely affected by the bushfires, with grants of up to $15,000 for short-term relief available through the Regional Assistance Authority.
As well as losing everyday holiday business, the representatives at the meeting are losing income from the postponement of major events in the region, like the Tathra Wharf to Waves and The Cobargo Folk Festival.
There were suggestions from those at the meeting that alternative, one-off events which would bring people to the region later in the year when it will presumably be safe to return.
Carmen’s business partner Frankie J Holden suggests planning for an epic Christmas in July in Tathra to recreate some of the holiday spirit which was interrupted by disaster.
Many accommodation businesses are full of locals who have lost homes or just see Tathra as a safer place to be than their own homes, but the owners of accommodation businesses are not charging full price, with some charging only a cleaning fee.
Blend Providore owner Bronnie Pividori has recently extended her popular cafe, just in time for the crowds which were promptly turned away by fire. She is very concerned about the future of her business.
“There’s a lot of money coming in to help with the fires,” she says, “and a lot of people who want to help but not much of it is going to go to small business.”
So what can we do to help in areas affected by fire? Use services. Eat out. Splash out on a night in a hotel by the water. Purchase what you need locally.