Sea and tree changers: Wellington Shire’s newest residents

Liz Bell

FOR much of the past 40 years, former Melbourne resident Simon Dubbin’s daily commute to and from work took the best part of three hours in a maddening chaos of traffic congestion, irate drivers, roadworks and car horns.

Today, it’s a pleasant five-minute trip from Sale to his aviation engineering job in east Sale, where he started this year after escaping the rat race for a quieter life in regional Victoria.

While his wife and last school-age child will stay in Melbourne until the end of the year, the slight disruption to family life is a small price to pay for clean air and a better work-life balance.

“The opportunity to take a job somewhere where we are close to the sea, close to the mountains, and not stuck in a car for three hours a day was too good to refuse,” he said.

“Melbourne is getting busier and busier, and the traffic is crazy – I just couldn’t keep doing it.”

It’s a sentiment shared by many sea and tree changers, some of whom cite COVID-19 as a factor in their move, while others say they were drawn to the slower pace of regional living and then discovered the benefits of closer community connections.

If predictions are correct, Wellington Shire’s population looks set to boom, as more and more city dwellers escape their crowded urban environments to discover a new life in the shire’s clean and green coastal and rural towns.

Real estate agents around the shire say they are experiencing a surge in demand for properties, with the largest number of enquiries coming from Melbourne, and even Sydney and Brisbane.

And why not?

According to the Regional Australia Institute, the presence of COVID-19 has removed one of the most significant barriers to a substantial population shift in this country – employment.

Chief executive Liz Ritchie said the notion of how we work has been turned on its head, with employers realising that productivity and output is not necessarily reduced when staff work from home.

She hopes the change will result in significant population growth in the regions, following on from a trend that has already been set over a decade.

The RAI’s June report looked at population trends around the country from 2011 to 2016, and confirmed regional Australia attracted more people than it lost to capital cities during the last Census, attracting a net inflow of 65,204 people.

“Our two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, lost more residents to regions than they gained – and this was well before COVID-19,” Ms Ritchie said.

“Over the last few months, we’ve all had to change how we work, and this has allowed staff and employers to see that location is no longer a barrier for where we choose to work.”

Last November, former Melbourne resident Gill Gowing was looking at moving from Hoppers Crossing in the western suburbs to seaside Portland in the state’s far west, when her internet search took her to a pretty little house in Loch Sport – a place she’d never been.

Within weeks, the semi-retired single had bought a house in the seaside village and had become a bona fide Loch Sportian.

Within months, she had moved and made social connections in the close-knit community, and was wondering why she hadn’t made the leap earlier.

“It was pretty amazing really; I didn’t know anybody here but after a visit to the community house I was introduced to some locals and then I was invited to Friday nights at the LakeView and Thursday nights at the RSL, and meet-ups at the local coffee shop,” she said.

“People here are so friendly and welcoming, they even pop around and visit.

“I lived in Hoppers Crossing for 23 years and often wouldn’t see a person for days.

“In Loch Sport, I feel like part of the community, and it’s like my own little piece of paradise.”

For Peter Evgenias, 41, the cost of housing and the lifestyle opportunities made it an easy decision to ditch the stresses of Sydney and move to Sale almost two years ago with his partner and children, before settling down in Stratford last November.

In his “element”, Peter has ditched the corporate gear and grown an unruly beard, and in his spare time when he’s not playing outside with his two boys or getting involved in local football and community theatre, he’s putting up fences on his hectare of property or building up his garden.

“After eight years in Sydney, I found it almost nauseating – there was so much crime and I just had to get out,” he said.

“I didn’t want my boys, who are now nine and 12, growing up in that environment.”

So when “all the stars aligned” and an employment opportunity opened up for Peter in Sale in aviation, he and his partner Taina Goron jumped.

While it took a bit longer for Taina, a legal secretary, to find fulfilling employment, she is now working in a health and community role in Bairnsdale and wouldn’t go back to Sydney “in a million years”.

Peter said the lifestyle benefits for the couple and the boys had been unimaginable.

An avid equestrian, Taina has made friends in the Gippsland horse community, and even instructs at the local pony club when social distancing permits.

“In Sydney, it was costly for Taina to keep her horse, and it involved lots of travelling because we had to have him stabled somewhere,” he said.

“Now we are on acreage, the horse is here with us and the boys have motorbikes they can ride around – all on a property that would have cost millions in Sydney.

“My kids ride their bikes to school and are heavily involved in local sports – we have good jobs and our health and we feel very lucky”.

Maffra newcomer Stephanie Downs, 36, has been overwhelmed by the community spirit of her little town.

“The community is amazing; its resilience in the face of bushfires, drought and now COVID-19 is incredible.

“People have each others’ backs – they look out for each other,” she said.

“The town sticks together, even the businesses go out of their way to help – they are fantastic.”

Ms Downs and her husband rent out of town, and live a blissful semi-rural life with their young children.

Work was not an obstacle in the family’s decision to move, with working from home always an option.

“It’s a different world here, the kids are much better off,” Ms Downs said.

“It’s a nicer environment; we love it, we cannot imagine going back to Melbourne,” she said.

But it’s not just newcomers who love the life of rolling hills and sweeping countryside.

According to the RAI, about 30 per cent of young people who move from a region to a big city after school end up returning to a regional area.

Former Sale resident Jaide Stevens left Sale seven years ago at 18 to broaden her horizons and study at university, but can’t wait to get back.

Born and raised in Sale, it seemed an easy decision at the time to leave her extended family network, friends and a comfortable life.

“I wanted to leave, I was ready to leave, it was a natural thing to leave home and go to study and see what was out there,” she said.

“But now I’m older I miss the small town life.

“I remember being happy in Sale, and enjoying a great outdoors lifestyle, but in Melbourne it doesn’t seem to be as easy to have that balance.”

Jaide, who works in marketing, said employment was the only thing holding her and her partner back from returning.

“I look at jobs all the time, and if something came up we would definitely come back,” she said.

“Apart from missing family, I am at a stage where I’m ready to buy a house, and there’s no way we could do that in Melbourne.”

In 2015, the median house price in Sale was $297,000 and the surrounding communities of Maffra and Stratford had a median house price of $230,000 and $260,000 respectively.

Today, that figure has barely moved, with the average house price in Sale hovering around the $320,000 mark, according to a popular real estate website.

The third largest municipality in Victoria, Wellington Shire covers an area of 10,924 square kilometres of vastly different terrains, including mountains, farming flats, rivers and beaches.

And it’s those beaches and coastal towns that are drawing a fair share of escapees from the city.

David Wheeler from Heart Property in Sale said he was receiving weekly enquiries from city residents looking for coastal properties, with many looking to swap suburbia for coastal scenes permanently.

“We have had a marked increase in enquiries for areas in and around Seaspray, but the problem is now we just can’t get enough stock to meet demand,” he said.

Renee Potts from CShell Real Estate in Loch Sport said coastal properties were in high demand, with the agency fielding 50 per cent more enquiries than in previous winters, and from a changing demographic.

“We expect a big surge in enquiries and sales over summer, but this is the first time we have had this type of interest over winter,” she said.

“People are looking for houses they can live in now or blocks of land they can build on – it’s everything, and while our biggest market used to be retirees, now it’s families and younger people.”

Ms Potts said people from Melbourne still made up the largest proportion of buyers, who loved that they could buy a house for less than half the cost of a similar property in the city.

She said the heightened risks of contracting COVID-19 in crowded environments had also played a role in some people’s decisions to move.

“Social distancing and lockdowns has meant lots of people living in the city are putting their lives in perspective, thinking ‘do we really want to be stuck were in the city’,” Ms Potts said.

“People can now work from home and why wouldn’t you rather do that in Loch Sport? We have national park and beaches, and no subdividing of land into tiny blocks, so you’ll never be built out.”

Ms Potts said development in Loch Sport was catering for the increase in population, with a new supermarket in Lake St, and a second service station soon to be completed.

Seachange newcomer Gianna Braida, loves her simple “beach shack” at Paradise Beach.

When her husband Dallas secured a job at Longford Gas Plants late last year, things happened so quickly the couple had to act fast to be here by 2020.

“We sold our house in Melbourne on the Thursday, came up to look at this property we found online on Saturday, made an offer on Sunday and purchased on Monday,” she said.

The former clothing product manager said finding suitable work for her wasn’t as easy, so she now runs her own business making artwork from ‘found’ and beach-themed objects that she sells online, and is looking at beginning art-based school holiday programs.

“I love our little shack and being so close to the beach – we know we made the right decision,” she said.

“The biggest downside is that I don’t know many people here yet, but I am looking forward to getting involved in the local community when I can.”

But like all major life changes, there can be some downsides to moving house.

More than 20 years ago, Paul Redfern took the plunge and relocated from the leafy eastern suburbs of Melbourne to Wellington Shire, where his then wife had grown up.

But he said the limited retail and cultural options, and the difficulties of breaking into the “cliques” of small towns such as Sale could make life difficult, and warned people considering the change to be aware that fitting in could take a long time.

Now in secure employment with a large, state-based company, Mr Redfern said cronyism and nepotism in small communities risked hampering the merit-based employment opportunities of “outsiders”.

“I did find it difficult when I came to Sale, because a lot of employers hire people they went to school with or they hire family and friends, so some jobs are not even advertised and you are already on the back step,” he said.

Mr Redfern said it was difficult to accept as a newcomer that not being part of the ‘old crowd’ kept him out of the inner sanctum in the work environment and was initially a block to making social connections.

“It’s just something that I think people should be aware of – don’t expect it to be easy,” he said.

While he says things are slowly improving, in terms of the arts, he advised people considering the move to do their homework before deciding small-town living was the right choice.

With a surge in city dwellers looking to move to the regions, there are questions about the rapid population increase and whether regional municipalities can manage the growth.

A Wellington Shire Council spokesperson said its current strategic planning focus was on a range of residential growth fronts, particularly in north Sale and Wurruk growth areas and through the preparation of the Maffra Structure Plan to support future development.

“Wellington Shire Council is keen to see residential development in all main town centres, supporting population growth and future investment,” he said.

“Wellington Shire Council is investing heavily in sporting, community, open space and commercial area infrastructure improvements, so our towns can be prosperous and attractive places to live and work.”