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A new heart for Lake Bolac
When the Westpac Bank shut its doors in Lake Bolac in 1994 and the National Australia Bank in Willaura closed in 2000, enough was enough for local residents who were stranded without local banking services.
Their determination to reinstate services resulted in a new combined community bank branch in Lake Bolac in 2004 (in conjunction with a branch at Willaura), as well as a thriving business hub that was to become a new heart for Lake Bolac and a major service centre for smaller towns nearby.
Known as the Lake Bolac Information and Business Centre, the building features a Bendigo Bank branch, Visitor Information Centre, a remote office for Ararat Rural City Council, Centrelink and Medicare terminals, as well as rentable office space, a retail area selling local products, public access computers, historical archives and meeting room hire.
The LBiBC is open from 9am to 5pm weekdays and 10am to 4pm weekends. Services offered to the public include banking, photocopying, printing, secretarial and computer work. A paid manager oversees the smooth running of the centre, which is primarily run by volunteers.
Lake Bolac Development Association president Karen McIntyre was one of the many volunteered who labored to bring this major project to fruition.
“The project brightened the landscape, revitalised the business precinct, was warmly received in the community and introduced much needed services, information, facilities and retail opportunities to our area,” Karen said.
The journey began in 2003 when the Lake Bolac Development Association applied for funding for a Rural Transaction Centre through the federal Department of Transport and Regional Services.
The Association was initially allocated a $5,000 feasibility grant which provided an external field officer to assess the project. After conducting hours of research, endless lobbying and filling out reams of paperwork- a 150 page proposal was submitted in 2003. It was accepted several months later and $279,343 was received for the project.
But it wasn’t long before the project hit its first major hurdle.
“From the time of our application till the time the money came through, building costs went up a further $70,000! The project blew out to more than $348,000,” Karen said.
“We were using specialist building contractors from Ballarat who were bound to complete the project within the RTC specified time frame, which complicated things. We applied for the additional funding under the RTC program and were successful.”
To set up the Information Centre, a Rural Transaction Centre Committee of six people was elected from the Development Association. They ran a number of public meetings attended by the project architect to present concept plans to the community.
“We had lots of public forums, so we were open at all times to the needs of the local community and we tried to involve as many people as we could along the way,” Karen said.
“The first lot of building plans were unrealistic and we had to scale them down to what we could afford and what we wanted aesthetically.”
The Willaura/Lake Bolac Community Bank Steering Committee was also established at this time and was successful in its bid to seek $450,000 in pledges from local residents and businesses to enable a bank branch to go ahead.
Karen said one of the major criteria of the Rural Transaction Program funding guidelines was to ensure the project did not detract from the profitability of local businesses.
“Our main aim was to provide services and facilities that could benefit everyone in the community, as well as a place where visitors could get information about the town itself. We also had great support from Councillors for the project, and received a fee for service grant so we could provide basic services on behalf of Council.”
Karen said the project was an avenue to assist people into volunteering and learning new skills; initially through the planning and construction phase of the building and later as they signed on to help as information and reception personnel at the centre.
“Personally the project was a very rewarding experience to share in. To see the visible results of all the hard work and the ongoing success of the venture is a further motivator to future projects and possibilities.”
Treasurer of the Lake Bolac Development Association, Tom Atkinson said his biggest challenge was satisfying the high expectations of the funding agreement.
“Up until then we had a pencil and paper account system. All of a sudden we found ourselves having to handle hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was an unusual set of circumstances for a small not-for-profit organisation, but we worked our way through it as best we could. When the building was complete and we established some office space, we welcomed Mulcahy Accounting Services who now help us out.”
Tom said setting up a taxation finance system to take local arts, crafts and produce for sale on consignment was also a new experience – but it was all worth it.
“I am still excited about the whole thing and we are now looking at expansion after only three years,” he said. “Things have moved along well and most people in the community love it. As new businesses come here we look at getting them to open an account with us.”