IAN Whalley is awakening the hamlet of Merino from its slumber, as KATE DOWLER reports
Merino is one of Victoria's infamous ghost towns.
Situated 22km south of Casterton in the far southwest of Victoria, the tiny town - the state's first inland settlement - is isolated, its survival challenged.
But not if Ian Whalley can help it.
Ian, a former Melbourne town planner, boldly bought the Merino Hotel last year, a rambling heritage-listed building, and is now attempting to reinvigorate it.
He had never lived in the town of about 200 people, let alone rural Victoria.
First meeting Ian, his energy and plethora of ideas for his new community is staggering, from rebuilding the old cinema in the hotel, to raising the former town newspaper and creating a local footy team.
He says he saw potential to build a business - and a social-hub for the community - with a point of difference.
The plan, he acknowledges, is loftily ambitious.
"I want to make this place different," Ian says.
"The days of a country pub having just a bar and serving meals have gone. It has got to offer something unique so people want to travel to it."
Ian says his goal for the hotel is to make it more of a true public house, and focal point for the community, like you might find in a UK village.
"That doesn't happen as much in Australia, but I think we can do it here."
Ian says the cinema, in a back room of the hotel, once regularly screened films. It will be the first of many projects, and has already held screenings for historic society nights.
Ian plans to hold special screenings for various groups, or on request from hotel guests.
He has also given the long-dead Merino Chronicle newspaper a second-wind as a regular page in the local newspaper, The Casterton News, sourcing and buying advertising to ensure the page is well-supported.
Merino has been without a football club for many years, following a failed merger attempt, but there is now a push to get a junior team going in the local Casterton competition.
Also assisting is fellow newcomer to the town, Leading Sen-Constable Barry Judge.
It is an odd coincidence that Barry and Ian both grew up at Box Hill in Melbourne, just years apart at school.
They did not know each other but both moved to the region at about the same time.
Barry is now heavily involved in the Casterton Football Club and says that making the move to Merino was "the best thing ever" for him.
They hope to get a side up ready for next year's season.
"Young people need to feel a relevance to them in their local area, and sport can do that," says Ian.
"Too often young people are locked out of the decision-making, and they need to see a town like Merino as being relevant to their future - that is how we will reverse the idea that rural Australia is dead."
Merino was established in 1837, when Francis Henty, brother of Victoria's first permanent settler Edward Henty, established Merino Downs station.
It became a bustling town, with four pubs and a butterfat exporter, selling directly and exclusively to the UK.
As rural populations dropped, Merino found it hard to keep up.
The encroachment of bluegums thanks to managed investment schemes has also reduced populations as farmers sold out and moved off their land.
As Ian observes there must be something keeping the "eccentric" community alive.
Albeit small, Ian says there was resilience to Merino.
"I call it eccentric because of some of the great characters around.
"Such as Rick Lane, the local electrician who doesn't wear shoes or socks, year-round, and always has 400 jobs on the go.
"He works on a barter-system, trades for jobs, such as having 12 Merino ewes running on my block out the back.
There are so many people here that have family connections right back to the origin of the town."
Ian has his own connection, on his mother's side, to local landowner Les Smith, whose family was well-known in the Mumbannar area.
This, he feels, gives him "justification" for coming to the town.
"I went to the post office and saw there were 125 post office boxes, so that all those people have to come to town; there are 50 children at the local primary school, a bush nursing centre, a pool, golf course, manned police station - somehow this place has managed to hang on to at least this infrastructure."
Ian was doing some town planning work with the Glenelg Shire, flying down from Melbourne, when the beauty of the Western District struck him.
Now, in his new role as local publican, he offers his town planner services pro bono.
He is also building relationships with other businesses that are on the beaten tourist track, such as the successful Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, in the hope that they may direct some business his way.
The local Henty wine region is also benefiting from the hotel's revamp, with Ian selling their wines exclusively.
At the moment, the hotel is selling about 70 meals on a Saturday night and 50 on Fridays, enough for Ian to be "breaking even financially".
"There was a lot of outlay, so it is a matter of recouping some of that.
"But the fact is, I live here now. This is home, so it is not all about money. The jury is still out, but I think I can make this viable business, and something that is valuable to the local community."