Kat Wittmann opened a business in Oatlands only three months ago but regularly finds herself apologising to tourists for a lack of services.
- Oatlands had a tourism downturn when Callington Mill Visitor Centre closed
- Tourism operators say visitors are not being catered for
- Locals are pinning their hopes on a proposed distillery
The textile artist and her family moved from New South Wales to the historic town in Tasmania’s southern midlands for the lifestyle and the heritage buildings.
The town, 90 kilometres north of Hobart, is a short detour off the state’s main highway.
They bought some sandstone accommodation cottages and opened a small shop for Mrs Wittmann’s textiles.
Callington is the only operating mill of its type in the southern hemisphere. (Supplied: @Tassie_Heights)
“I just fell in love with the place and then we saw the [Callington] Mill and it’s such a fantastic icon, just such a drawcard,” she said.
But it is a drawcard that is not being fully realised, according to Mrs Wittmann and others.
“When I’m open here in my studio people will often come and duck their head in and say ‘where are the toilets?’ or ‘is there a visitor information centre’ or ‘the information online tells us that it’s open and it’s not’,” she said.
“And I apologise even though we’ve only been here three months. I feel bad about it because it’s such an asset.”
This week, ABC News in Tasmania is turning a spotlight on the massive spike in the state’s tourism sector to examine how the state is coping and who is benefitting.
Some would argue Oatlands is one town which is not riding the wave of the tourism surge.
It has been just over a year since the main drawcard, the Callington Mill and Visitor Centre, virtually closed its doors overnight.
It is owned by the Tasmanian Government but was leased and run by the Southern Midlands Council, which deemed its operation too expensive.
Debbie Wilson who owns an antique and interiors store said it had been a rough 12 months for the town.
“A lot of the cafes and accommodation and businesses that have relied on tourism numbers have declined over the last 12 or 18 months since the Callington Mill site was closed,” she said.
Kat Wittman’s art venture is open for business but she would like to see more visitors coming off the highway. (ABC News: Annah Fromberg)
Built in 1837, the Callington Mill was restored in 2010 at a cost of $2 million.
While tourists can still walk around the site and flour is still being milled, there are no tours or visitor information.
Ms Wilson has been operating her antique store in Oatlands for the past 23 years.
Her business has weathered the downturn but she said many had not.
Oatlands antique store owner Debbie Wilson says the town “has a lot to offer”. (ABC News: Annah Fromberg)
“Immediately there were a lot properties for sale, and a few businesses closed their doors,” she said.
Along with agriculture, tourism is one of Oatlands’s main industries, with the town’s 600-strong population relying on visitors to spend money in cafes, shops and B&Bs.
As well as boasting the only working Georgian mill in the southern hemisphere, a major point of interest in Oatlands is the sheer number of historic sandstone buildings — 87 in the main street alone, one of the largest collections in Australia.
Supermarket owner Shane Adams said the decline in tourism was disappointing.
“It’s sad because I think we’ve got a lot to offer,” he said.
“Tassie in general is getting lots of tourist numbers but they’re just not penetrating to these sorts of areas. The cruise ships come in — I think they’re coming as far as Richmond and that’s about it.”
Locals pinning hopes on whisky-led recovery
It is hoped a distillery will tempt tourists off the Midland Highway. (Supplied: Cumulus Studios)
Business owners are hoping a proposed $2.5million whisky distillery for the Callington Mill site will revive the town.
Sydney developer John Ibrahim has a long-term lease on the mill precinct and owns an adjacent property, where he plans to construct three new buildings to house the distillery, a restaurant and a barrel room.
His vision is an integrated complex that would see the visitor centre reopen and tours of the heritage site resume.
“I want to achieve a 100 per cent Tasmanian-made whisky distillery that aligns with the significant heritage location,” he said.
Mr Ibrahim already has significant investments in whisky in Tasmania, including the Redlands and Shene Estate operations.
Tasmanian whisky maker Bill Lark (left) with friend and Sydney developer John Ibrahim. (Supplied)
He said the mill site was key to the brand he is planning and he estimated the venture would generate 15 local jobs.
But he said the flow-on effects could bring many more.
“I believe it will be a catalyst to bring in more tourists and generate more foot traffic and for other industries to grow around it,” he said.
“It will give confidence to other tourism developers.”
Mrs Wittmann is excited about the proposal.
“I have high hopes for him doing a really good job,” she said.
“The development application looks really solid to me.”
Mr Adams agreed.
“I think the whisky distillery going [in] will be a big plus and I’d like to see more of it,” he said.
Ms Wilson believes it is key to reviving the town.
“Last week we decided to start a business trading group with lots of new businesses in town so there’s a lot more positive energy within the business community.”
Tourism a priority for region’s new Mayor
The proposal’s fate lies with the new-look Southern Midlands Council which has called a special meeting to vote on the development application on Wednesday.
Tourism is the top priority for the new Mayor, Alex Green, who has been in the job for just over a month.
New Mayor Alex Green says a tourism strategy is one of his priorities. (ABC News: David Hudspeth)
“One of my first proposals is to develop a new economic development plan for the Southern Midlands including a tourism strategy, because a lot has changed in the last 10 years in this township,” he said.
“There’s a huge amount of potential here in Oatlands and I think it’s just starting to be recognised by private investors and we can see that through some of the proposals before council at the moment.”
The Mayor would not comment on the specifics of the whisky distillery proposal because the application is before council, but said he believed it has broad community support.
Councillor Green said the mill would continue to produce flour under Mr Ibrahim’s development and would be central to the branding of the distillery.
“We’ve got a wonderful setting for this activity and it’s great to see potentially Callington Mill having a long and new life as the centrepiece in a whisky story,” he said.
It was also important that a visitor centre reopened, he said.
“Visitors like access to relevant, current information and it is obviously something that is lacking, and we welcome proposals which will address a service shortfall.”
If passed, the distillery and mill complex is expected to open this time next year.