Corryong Neighbourhood Centre seeks job creation through social enterprise

Corryong Neighbourhood Centre's move into business aims to provide for its own future as well as enrich the Upper Murray community it serves

The reality of being “statistically insignificant” challenged an Upper Murray community group to think beyond the uncertainties of government funding.

Corryong Neighbourhood Centre wants to become more self-sufficient by establishing businesses that raise money for its operations, with an added, and essential, bonus of generating employment within the region.

The centre’s first venture, Upper Murray Community Bakery, began in 2015, while a second project, expanding an existing mechanical business in Walwa, is close to settlement this month.

Centre co-ordinators Sara Jenkins and Michael Leonhard estimated the Walwa scheme would represent a $1.8 million investment over time, with up to nine full-time staff expected to be working there within five years.

They agreed the past few years had involved leaps of faith, steep learning curves and ongoing financial risks.

But they and the centre’s volunteer committee of management continue to make plans and talk about them openly with Upper Murray residents.

“We obviously have ideas but we don’t let our ideas stand in the way of what the community needs are,” Mr Leonhard said.

Mrs Jenkins said secrecy was neither practical nor appropriate for a community group in a rural region.

“If we’ve told them everything, then they can come back to us and say, ‘We don’t agree’ or ‘We don’t like it’ or whatever, but they can’t say ‘We didn’t know’,” she said.

Mr Leonhard said being a remote area with a small population meant many government funding opportunities based on numbers of people weren’t available.

Any change of government inevitably brought new policies and funding arrangements to be navigated.

Corryong Neighbourhood Centre’s business model involved taking over existing businesses, bringing in qualified people to run the enterprises and thorough due diligence, the latter assisted by lender Social Enterprise Finance Australia.

For example, SEFA advised re-employing existing staff to ensure the bakery had the necessary expertise day to day.

The former head baker still works at Upper Murray Community Bakery, one of two qualified bakers plus an apprentice.

“The bigger we get, the more we do and certainly the more attention we draw from the community and everybody else, the more careful we’re trying to be to make sure that we’ve got all our ducks in a row,” Mrs Jenkins said.

But the centre’s social enterprise focus above everything is creating and maintaining jobs locally.

“If the models aren’t put together right from the beginning to employ people and put money back into the community, rather than just use a volunteer base – yes, it has an income saving to the community but it actually doesn’t put back (financially) into the community –  you won’t get the community to build upon that in the future,” Mr Leonhard said.

COUNTRY RETREAT: Upper Murray Community Bakery head baker Peter Grogan, who joined the business in 2015, generally starts work between 1am and 3am each day to produce fresh loaves, rolls and more. Picture: MARK JESSER

COUNTRY RETREAT: Upper Murray Community Bakery head baker Peter Grogan, who joined the business in 2015, generally starts work between 1am and 3am each day to produce fresh loaves, rolls and more. Picture: MARK JESSER

Bakery offers right recipe when kneading a change

A couple of years ago, a Pakenham baker knew he was sick of living in the city.

So when Peter Grogan heard about a job going in Corryong, closer to extended family, the time was right for a shift.

Mr Grogan and his wife Sherri run the Upper Murray Community Bakery in Corryong, a social enterprise owned by Corryong Neighbourhood Centre since mid-2015.

Centre co-ordinators Sara Jenkins and Michael Leonhard said when looking for a project that could provide ongoing funding and generate employment, the bakery next door, then up for sale, seemed an obvious choice.

Things moved fast, assisted by a loan from Social Enterprise Finance Australia.

“Within six weeks we went from idea to purchase and trading,” Mr Leonhard said.

Sales increased and the business contributed more than $83,000 to Corryong Neighbourhood Centre operations in its first two years of trading.

Open seven days, the shop now employs four full-time and 16 part-time/casual staff, who make everything on site for the earlly monring tradies, visitors passing through and regulars seeking some lunch or a snack.

Mr Grogan said the bakery was good for the community while life in the country also suited him.

“It’s great, awesome, people say hello to you down the street,” he said.

“You don’t have to stress.

“It’s a nice place to live.”