Norco, Summerland Credit Union, Mountain Blue Farms and Sunshine Sugar join forces to lobby for urgent flood recovery money

David Kirkpatrick
By David Kirkpatrick
Updated July 5 2022 - 12:42am, first published June 29 2022 - 3:27am

In a display of unprecedented public unity, four of the Northern Rivers largest businesses have called on the State and Federal Governments to fully fund a $100m flood assistance package in part to prevent 240 Norco workers being stood down by the middle of next month.

Norco, Summerland Credit Union, Mountain Blue Farms and Sunshine Sugar, that collectively employ thousands of workers on the Northern Rivers, want red tape to be cut, funding increased and for state and federal governments to bury their differences over flood recovery funding for the sake of small, medium and big businesses struggling to make a comeback.

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Four months on from Australia's worst flood disaster, only a trickle of money has flowed from the so-called Anchor Business Support Package.

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The Federal Government pledged $50m, but there's been squabbling over whether that's to be matched 50-50 by the State Government.

In a late flurry this week, details of how to apply for funding under the package were released and the NSW Government pitched in $15m.

So far, $5.6 million has been dished out to pay the wages of the 240 workers at Norco's flood-damaged ice cream factory in Union Street, South Lismore.

Of those workers, 44 have lost homes, cars or possessions in the floods.

The money to support them runs out on July 15 and Norco Chief Executive Michael Hampson made an emotional plea to governments of all persuasions to act quickly to save jobs and rebuild Lismore.

"We employ 240 people in Lismore and we generate a significant amount of economic activity with the 55 million litres of ice cream that we manufacture at that site," he said.

"We know that the original money that the government provided us runs out on 15th of July.

"Unfortunately, as terrible as this sounds, we will have to lay off 240 people from this town which will devastating impact on the recovery of Lismore.

"We call out to for both the State Government and the Federal Government, we don't care which one, we are not fussy, we need the anchor business package to go from $50 to $100m to help a lot of businesses, including businesses that are just outside the realms of the current guidelines.

"We are now at a point, which is absolutely critical, where these packages need to become larger, and they need to start getting to people's bank accounts sooner rather than later so we can maintain employment of hundreds of people in this community."

Mr Hampson said it was important for governments of all persuasions to stand up and support these businesses for the long-term future of Lismore.

"Because behind all of these businesses are people, real people, that have real lives and need real help and support and right now," he said.

Despite rising inflation costs, Mr Hampson said $100m should be enough to get businesses "back on their feet".

"There has been a significant natural disaster and there is not a lot of businesses lining up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Lismore right now,' he said.

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"We are, we are keen. We have been here for 127 years and we want to be here for another 127

"So if this package moves from $50 to 100m we will be here supporting the community that we have for the last 127 years."

Mr Hampson estimates it will cost between $60 to $70m to re-build Norco's ice cream factory which was halfway through a $30m upgrade when the flood hit on February 28.

Asked it it was crazy to build back at Norco's current site since it was badly inundated by floodwaters, Mr Hampson said.

"We are on the bank of the river but our factory is actually quite high, it will survive a 1974 flood no problems at all," he said.

"When we rebuild, and we say when we rebuild, because I do have hope that the government will help, we will do some further flood mitigation works to that facility to increase the height of various key electrical components, put on flood doors to keep water out so that we can continue to manufacture product.

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"Lismore has had over 100 floods. everyone has had the memo that Lismore floods.

"So what we are dealing with here is decades of inaction on flood mitigation for this entire region.

"It is not fair that residents and businesses continually have to pay the cost for that and we do ask and we need the government to stand up and help."

Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg, who's two CBD businesses were also wrecked in the floods, said his focus for the past four months had been about "the people".

"I have been saying for four months that what we are living through is a humanitarian disaster as much as it is a natural disaster," he said.

"My message is all about the humanity of this. We need to make sure we can not only maintain these anchor businesses but every single business that is in our local government area so that no matter what you do, everyone has got the opportunity to work and to have input into the growing thriving hub that will be Lismore into the future."

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Summerland Credit Union CEO John Williams had a slightly different take on support for flood impacted businesses like his.

"We now find ourselves with an interesting risk appetite decision to be made," he said.

"On one hand, we have a significant investment to re-build our buildings and re-establish back in the CBD but on the other hand we also have increased risk from floods, particularly now that the Lismore CBD is effectively uninsurable from a business perspective.

"We want to re-build, we want to re-establish our head office and our banking services back into the Lismore CBD. We think that is part of our responsibility not only to our customers but also to the broader community.

"The recovery of the CBD and the future economic prosperity of Lismore will be business led.

"To put it simply, the current funding packages are not enough support for major businesses nor for the full economic recovery of Lismore."

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Federal Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt said he was "very concerned about supporting ongoing employment on the Northern Rivers".

"Unfortunately the former Morrison Government dragged its feet for months after announcing the Anchor Grants Program, delaying much-needed support to large local businesses," he said.

"That's why I have fast tracked grants processes since becoming Minister less than one month ago and asked my department to work closely with Norco and other local firms to support their rebuilding. Grant applications are now open and money will start flowing to businesses as soon as possible.

"It will take all levels of government working with industry and community to rebuild the Northern Rivers and ensure the long-term viability of local businesses affected by the devastating floods, and that work is ongoing."

A spokesperson for the NSW Government said applications had only just opened for the Anchor Business Support Program, a program the Federal Government had initially committed to funding on its own.

"The NSW Government has committed to topping up the fund by contributing $15 million to support large businesses in the Northern Rivers," the spokesperson said."

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"More than $3.5 billion has already been committed by the NSW and Australian Governments in flood clean-up and recovery."

Page MP Kevin Hogan said work was happening on developing industry specific packages including one for landlords who own CBD or industrial precinct property.

Norco Chief Executive Michael Hampson want decisive action by all levels of government in order to save 240 jobs. Picture: Mitch Craig
David Kirkpatrick

I'm a media professional with over 34 years of experience in public relations and journalism, including a decade setting Lismore's news agenda as the editor of The Northern Star. I have proven track record in growing audiences and improving engagement by delivering quality local stories for and about the Lismore community.