2016 Greater Port Macquarie Business Awards nominee: Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail

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Radiant Heart, Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail

Radiant Heart, Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail

It was important to us to create a cultural tourism trail that took people across the region to discover new townships and villages in the farther reaches of the area beyond the CBD...

Margret Meagher Project Director, Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail

Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail is the signature cultural/tourism attraction for Port Macquarie-Hastings, encompassing 50+ sculptures, hand painted by artists, and sponsored by business and community.

In a very short space of time, Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail has captured the hearts of the local community as well as becoming arguably the most successful cultural tourism attraction in the history of the Port Macquarie-Hastings region.

It’s the brainchild of local resident Margret Meagher who moved to the area in 2003. She tells the story:

My career has always been involved in the arts – managing art galleries, publishing arts magazines, promoting concerts, dance and theatre productions, setting up arts websites, working in cultural tourism (including the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games), organizing conferences and creating arts events and festivals.

When I moved to the Mid North Coast with my partner John, I was struck by the sheer natural beauty of the local environment. Previously in Sydney, I had been involved in the early days of Sculpture by the Sea, along the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk, and I decided that it would be great to create a permanent sculpture trail in my new hometown.

For years, I searched for the right idea and then came across an animal sculpture project in Hull in the west of England called ‘Larkin with Toads’. It was a sculpture trail comprising 40 one metre high fibreglass sculpture replicas of the toad, an animal made famous in Hull by their local celebrity poet Phillip Larkin. To commemorate his life, the locals of Hull decided to create a sculpture trail as a short-term cultural tourism project.

I travelled to the UK and met the person who had managed this highly successful exhibition, Elaine Burke. We became friends and I invited her to help me create a design concept for a public sculpture exhibition which would engage the local community and be a successful tourist attraction on the Mid North Coast of NSW.

I also aimed to achieve more than this. I wanted to create an iconic brand for Port Macquarie-Hastings – the region where I had chosen to live. I felt strongly about fostering arts and culture locally too. And I intended the public art project to have a strong environmental message and become an ambassador for our local flora and fauna.  And with the largest koala population on the east coast of Australia, and our amazing volunteer run Koala Hospital, the Koala was the obvious choice for our animal sculpture design.

Also I hoped to create a free and permanent exhibition which would continue to give pleasure to people living or visiting the area, unlike most animal sculpture exhibitions which last a couple of months and then the sculptures find private homes.

So three years of research and planning went into the development of the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail in order to choose the right manufacturing process which would ‘last the distance’, and that included selecting fine quality Australian made art materials which had a high level of colour fastness and protection from UV light and weathering.  Selecting local suppliers was also important to ensure that much of the investment in the project stayed with the local community.

As a permanent art trail, it was also important that our sculpture designs were of a high artistic calibre, so nearly a year went into the process of calling for artists, selecting those artist designs we felt filled our criteria, bringing artists and sculpture sponsors together to collaborate on the painting of the sculptures and preparing the locations for the Trail.

Scoop.  A much treasured resident at the Port News' office

Scoop. A much treasured resident at the Port News' office

Another major part of the planning stages was in attracting Community Champions to support the Trail. We called them “Trail Blazers” – committing financial support and philosophical commitment to an idea and helping us to make it a reality and a successful one too.

In 2012, Port Macquarie Hastings Council came on board with some seed funding, followed by sponsors for each of the planned 50 koala sculptures. And in September 2014, the Premier, Mike Baird came to Port Macquarie to unveil the 50 Hello Koalas at Emerald Downs Golf Course before the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail was installed around the Port Macquarie-Hastings region.

It was important to us to create a cultural tourism trail that took people across the region to discover new townships and villages in the farther reaches of the area beyond the CBD, including the Camden Haven and the Wauchope hinterland, and to stop for refreshments or shopping along the way! The Trail can take up to two days to follow so it’s been a great way to encourage increased overnight stays by visitors.

Achievements to date include the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail being positioned as No 3 out of 63 Things to Do in Port Macquarie on the important tourism website TripAdvisor, following Coastal Walks as No 1 and the Koala Hospital as No 2.

Crusader Koala at Sea Acres. Photo: Roz Reynolds

Crusader Koala at Sea Acres. Photo: Roz Reynolds

We have also won Gold at the 2015 North Coast Tourism Awards in the “New Business” category and Bronze at the 2015 NSW Tourism Awards. We were recently awarded Silver in the 2016 North Coast Tourism Awards in the category of “Attractions” and are hoping for a win in the State tourism awards later this year.

Originally the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail was intended to run until December 2015 but due to popular demand – both from the community and visitors to our region – we decided to make Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail a permanent attraction and we are just finalizing now the reconfigured Trail, in preparation for the summer holidays.

We were very pleased to be nominated for the Port Chamber Holiday Coast 2016 Greater Port Macquarie Business Awards in the Tourism category.

We were a finalist in last year’s award and are back again to try our luck. We find the process of making an awards submission very valuable for ongoing business planning and it is also rewarding to step back and review what has been achieved over the past 12 months and identify ways to improve the business in the next 12!

It has also been an immense pleasure working with so many talented artists, many of them local and of course, our fantastic Community Champions deserve a big thank you for making this all possible. A special mention to Linda Hall too, who helped establish the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail for two years and is now driving the North Coast visitor experience division for National Parks and Wildlife Service.

To cast your vote in the Local Industry and People’s Choice Awards, simply go online to www.portchamber.com.au and follow the prompts.

Voting forms are also available at participating businesses and Holiday Coast Credit Union branches in Port Macquarie, Laurieton and Wauchope.

Voting closes at midnight on Sunday August 7, 2016.