Damien Lay knows a good idea when he hears one. So when a seven-year-old suggested he build a Willy Wonka-type vending machine so visitors to his Dunbogan Boatshed could pour their own fish food, he listened – and built it on the spot. "It was a no-brainer," he laughs. "Should have thought of it myself – it freed up everyone to do more boat cleaning."
No idea is too big, small or wacky for Lay, a one-time filmmaker, to consider if it will help breathe new life into this 1940s boatshed on the once sleepy shores of the Camden-Haven River, south of Port Macquarie on the NSW Mid North Coast.
The place is buzzing with people fishing, enjoying coffee, hiring boats and kayaks, feeding fish from the deck (even at night, thanks to an underwater lighting system), or tasting the wares at an on-site ice-cream parlour. He's had to boost staff numbers from six to more than 20 – during the pandemic.
Visitors who've taken a long time between dips in the pristine waters of the Port Macquarie-Hastings area can't help but notice it seems to have undergone a metamorphosis.
Once seen as the perfect place to retire or holiday with the family, now artists in residence are springing up in Port Macquarie businesses, visitors are taking art classes as well as surf lessons, and public sculpture is a thing. Cafes, restaurants and boutique breweries are busy creating new ingredients and even newer ways of showing them off.
Arthouse Industries, run by third-generation local Skye Petho, is a case in point. It's the week of the ArtWalk festival, where artists use shopfronts as galleries, and despite fears that COVID-19 might deter people it's been a big – if a socially distanced – success.
"People are looking for new ways to visit regional areas on weekends away, such as taking art classes with friends," says the award-winning glass artist.
As she poured wine for one such class during ArtWalk, life-drawing was taking place in a shopfront next door, and on a footpath outside a man at an easel was putting finishing touches on a stylised Kewpie doll as a skateboarder skidded to a stop to talk technique.
"Our community has changed considerably," Skye says. "We are seeing more people taking up creative practices and selling their work."It's a change that is helping tackle the big issues facing regional areas: lack of opportunity, loneliness, boredom – plus the stresses of bushfires and COVID.
"We've all had a massive year full of many different trials," Skye says. "I can't stress enough the importance creativity has on your mental health."
Even the 10-year-old Glasshouse – Port's multimillion-dollar cultural centre, once derided as being too big, too expensive and even too "glassy" – now has appreciation reflected on those soaring glass walls on Clarence Street. Before COVID, it was attracting more than 250,000 visitors a year, drawn by the 594-seat theatre with soundproofed rehearsal rooms, which lured the likes of Opera Australia, and an acclaimed art gallery and visitor centre.
This embracing of creativity can also be seen at Bago Maze and Winery at nearby Wauchope, where Ian Mobbs has created an architecturally designed hedge maze that would not be out of place next to a French chateau.
And there's BabaLila chocolates, whose creator, Tash Topschij, uses her Russian mother's long-lost recipes to create dark chocolates with native Australian flavours, and holds chocolate-making and painting classes. But back to Dunbogan Boatshed. Damien now has his eye on a vintage caravan to sell crêpes from, and plans to hold oyster and champagne cruises aboard a 1960s fishing trawler. "I talked – no, badgered – the owner into selling it to me," he laughs. "We have to keep it here. It's local history.