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Rural towns stare down the barrel

VISITING Wiluna, on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, today it’s difficult to imagine it once was a bustling town with a population of more than 10,000.

Wiluna in 2003 is like many other regional towns in WA. It is struggling to stay afloat, with its potential held in check by myriad stumbling blocks.

The tyranny of distance, crime, alcohol abuse, Native Title claims and small-town divisions are just some of the obstacles faced.

And those more entrepreneurial locals are often forced to go it alone, with the banks unwilling to back business ventures and loath to use regional property holdings as collateral.

Wiluna storeowner David Betteridge knows the problems only to well. It has taken him 18 months to get a new general store off the ground in town.

 “The banks just laughed at us because of the remoteness of the area,” Mr Betteridge said.

“They didn’t want to know us. It was really frustrating. All we got was negative results. We had to prove that we could make a profit.

“How could we prove that before going into business? It was all very frustrating.”

Where out-of-towners were not prepared to put their hands in their pockets, the locals did. In one of the largest private investments in the town for some time, about $1 million was invested to build the Gunbarrel Groceries.

And early indications are that

the faith in the future of the town appears to be rewarded, with turnover already in excess of $20,000 a week.

While the economy of the Wiluna Shire is very much skewed toward the mining industry – through Normandy’s investment in Wiluna Gold and Jundee/Nimary as well as WMC’s nickel operation at Mt Keith – local traders such as Mr Betteridge see little flow-on benefit to their own business.

Instead, tourism is seen as the answer to the future growth prospects of the town.

“This town has a huge amount of potential,” Mr Betteridge said. “It has the rare position of being the town from which the Gunbarrel Highway and the Canning Stock Route lead to.”

Shire president and hotel manageress Kerrie Johnston said the seasonal tourist trade provided as much as 80 per cent of the town’s income.

Already tourist numbers have been steadily growing, but efforts are now under way to try to clean up the town and make it more attractive for tourists. Mr Betteridge hopes to establish a tourist information centre in his store as well as an Aboriginal cultural centre, were the local community could work and sell their produce to passing travellers. Plans are also under way to develop bush tucker and cultural walks.

Next month the shire council hopes to establish a tourism committee to look at how other towns are maximising the potential for tourism.

However, a significant impediment to attracting tourists is the unsealed road between Meekatharra and Wiluna. The shire council is pushing for the State Government to spend an estimated $70 million to improve the accessibility of the town.

It’s a call being repeated by Kalgoorlie-Boulder Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Laura Strachan and the Goldfields Transport Association, which have made public calls to fast-track the sealing work on the Meekatharra-Wiluna Road.

The Government has pencilled this in for 2006.

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