Dark matter, gold and vegetables are unlikely economic allies in this regional town

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Posted August 11, 2019 06:00:00

If you take cutting-edge research into a mysterious substance that binds the universe together, and you combine it with a resurgent gold rush, you get a recipe for an economic surge.

But Stawell, in western Victoria, is missing one key ingredient: houses.

Over the next 10 years, an Australian-first dark matter laboratory is expected to pump $180 million into the region and become a focus of international physics research.

Record gold prices have renewed production at the town’s mine while the construction of a $90-million vegetable farm is driving demand for hundreds of new workers — a significant jump for the region’s population of about 29,000.

“We’re looking at around 1,000 jobs,” said Northern Grampians Shire Mayor Kevin Erwin.

“We’ve already had professional people leave the town because of a lack of suitable housing.”

Dark matter detector in Stawell

Not all Stawell locals may be able to tell you what dark matter is but most know it will support about 80 ongoing jobs.

The State and Federal Governments have provided $10 million for the construction of a dark matter detector being built at the gold mine over the next 12 months.

When the project began moving ahead in 2018, Alan Duffy from Swinburne University told ABC Ballarat that dark matter was “like a ghost” that was able to travel through solid material.

“Very rarely it will collide and that’s the very rare chance we’re trying to see with the detector that would flash when struck by dark matter,” Professor Duffy said.

“But it also flashes when struck by anything, which includes radiation from space so to escape that … we have to take it deep underground, over a kilometre deep, and have that rock that sits between us and space act as a shield.”

Professor Duffy said while only a few researchers would actually access the lab, if successful, the scientific impact would have international implications.

“The facility at Stawell will have explained more of the universe, five times more of the universe, than all of our scientific endeavours to date,” he said.

“That is an extraordinary gift to the world that Stawell will have made possible.”

Gold makes a comeback

Like many Victorian towns, the gold rush brought thousands of settlers to Stawell more than 160 years ago.

“Gold has been one of the most important businesses in the Stawell community for a long time,” said Stawell Gold Mines’ health, safety, environment and community manager David Coe.

“If you look back at the gold rush days, it founded the Stawell community.”

Stawell Gold Mines operated for 35 years until it closed in 2016, but with a record-high gold price being set earlier this month, the mine is up and running again.

“We will be hitting our full capacity probably in the next six months,” Mr Coe said.

“We have about 187 direct Stawell Gold Mines employees and we probably have about 30 full-time contractors on site as well.”

With the mine back in production, more money is being pumped into the town but there’s also more demand for homes — and the housing supply simply cannot cope.

Only ‘one out of 100’ properties vacant

Stawell real estate agent Bruce McIlvride said the town’s vacancy rate had dropped well below 1 per cent, with only about three out of 480 rental properties available.

“On our books, we are at the lowest I’ve experienced in 12 years,” he said.

“We manage about 100 properties. Currently at the moment, we have one property vacant at Pomonal and we have none in Stawell,” he said.

Mr McIlvride said there had been a 13-per-cent increase in house prices in the past 12 months, reaching a median of about $215,000.

“That just shows there’s a great contentment with people living in Stawell, they’re not wanting to move away and the town seems to be kicking along quite happily,” he said.

“That supply, I can’t see that changing significantly in the next six to 12 months.”

‘We need people’: Mayor

On top of the renewed production at the gold mine, a 40-hectare, $90-million hydroponic farm is expected to begin operating near Stawell in late 2020, creating more jobs than the town can fill.

The Northern Grampians Shire, along with councils in neighbouring Ararat and Pyrenees Shire, are coordinating with Regional Development Victoria to establish a migrant and refugee resettlement program.

“Because we have these jobs coming online, we need people, families, to come to this area,” Cr Erwin said.

“Housing is the issue.”

The Northern Grampians Shire has allocated eight hectares of land for development on Stawell’s fringes, which could see about 100 new houses built.

Mr McIlvride said while any developments were positive, the council should be careful not to create an oversupply of housing in the long term, with many people from nearby towns travelling to work.

“The biggest challenge will be the timelines, getting a subdivision up and going, and being available for construction, could take between six to 12 months.”

Expressions of interest for investment in the housing development close on September 5.

Topics: research-projects, regional-development, housing, local-government, regional, ballarat-3350, stawell-3380