When the going gets tough, throw a festival

By Robbie Sefton

Agriculture’s rapidly growing efficiency has been challenging for many of the regional centres that were built around a large agricultural workforce.

Truckloads of possibilities for reversing the stagnation in the economies of many rural townships have been discussed over the decades, but the only sure recipes for growth seem to be either a large regional centre with the critical mass for development, or to be an attractive village near a big city.

However, there is another way to bring economic stimulus to a rural or regional centre: invent a festival.

My own local centre, Tamworth, has just wrapped up its annual Country Music Festival (TCMF). This is the festival that others dream of. Over its nearly 50 years of existence, the TCMF has developed a mythology that now draws around 50,000 visitors a day to the city for its ten day duration.

The TCMF has a couple of vital ingredients that are hard to replicate – a long history and the sociable nature of diehard country music fans – but other towns, large and small, have tapped into the desire of people to congregate around a shared experience.

In their excellent 2009 survey of regional festivals, Christopher Gibson and Anna Stewart of the University of Wollongong asked whether festivals are significant for rural communities. Their answer: yes, indeed.

The authors documented 2800 festivals across regional Australia, but focused on three States — NSW, Victoria and Tasmania. They came to a staggering conclusion. “… we estimate total economic activity generated by rural communities for their local communities to be in the order of $10 billion per annum in the three participating states,” they wrote.

There is a lot of good news in this valuable report, but two items in particular are worth highlighting in this time of drought and difficulty.

One is that festivals generate jobs. The authors estimated that 176,560 full-time and part-time jobs were created directly in the planning and operation of cultural festivals in regional Australia.

The other observation is that festivals bring together communities. “Festivals are pivotal dates on the annual calendars of towns and villages: they support charities and provide opportunities for high schools and Rotary clubs to raise funds; they bring together scattered farm-folk, young and old and disparate subcultures; they blend attitudes, enlargen social networks and encourage improvements in social cohesion.”

This is true not just within the communities that hold the festivals, but in the temporary communities that festivals bring together.

Australians’ appetite for festivals doesn’t seem to be abating. If your town needs a boost, perhaps it is time to identify a base of fans and throw a party for them.

Just look at what Parkes has done with the Elvis Festival, or with the newer Abba Festival at Trundle, NSW.  Who would have thought that Elvis and Abba would be so important to the bush!

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