Victorian town’s health fears as residents fight bid to turf out gym in favour of liquor store

Victorian town’s health fears as residents fight bid to turf out gym in favour of liquor store

Jack Cocking uses the gym five days a week. Speaking with him, he exudes confidence but he says a few years ago he felt like an outcast.

Mr Cocking was overweight, at 125 kilograms, would binge on junk food, had low self-esteem and was at high risk of long-term illness.

“People actually notice me more now,” Mr Cocking, 24, said.

“And I wish I could say to myself five years ago, ‘You’re gonna be fine’.”

His story is a snapshot of rural life where regional Victorians, who make up 23 per cent of the state’s population, continue to have poorer health outcomes than their city counterparts.

Part of Mr Cocking’s metamorphosis has been the support at his gym in the central Victorian town of Maryborough, 170 kilometres north-west of Melbourne.

Jack Cocking is worried his mental health will suffer if his gym is evicted. (ABC Central Victoria: Tyrone Dalton)

But Central Goldfields Shire Council is considering approving an application for a Harry Brown liquor shop in the space the gym occupies.

For some, the possibility of Maryborough swapping a place of exercise for an alcohol outlet embodies the broader challenges facing regional communities.

Mr Cocking said he would be devastated if the gym closed.

“It’s a bit of a trigger to go backwards and I’m worried that my mental health will go on a bit of a downward spiral,” Mr Cocking said.

Tough tag to shake

Maryborough has long battled the tag of being one of the most disadvantaged towns in Victoria.

It featured in SBS docuseries Meet The Neighbours late last year.

The series placed people from multicultural backgrounds in the town, which is predominantly Anglo-Saxon.

The SBS series’ depiction was a sore point for many Maryborough residents.

After the series aired, the local council called on the federal government to help support the shire.

Public health academic Colin Bell, from the School of Medicine at Deakin University, said about two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children were overweight or obese in Australia, and that was even more acute in rural and regional areas.

“For example, availability of fresh and healthy foods is lower, the more rural you go, the access to opportunities for physical activity can diminish as well,” he said.

Ben Wintle runs the No Limits 24/7 gym in Maryborough.(ABC Central Victoria: Tyrone Dalton)

Residents baffled

24/7 No Limits Gym owner Ben Wintle says he is frustrated that his complex’s landholder, Aldi Supermarkets, would even consider an application to evict his business in exchange for a big liquor store.

“No one in the community wants another bottle shop,” Mr Wintle said.

“There’s no need for it.”

Victorian liquor licensing data shows there are four liquor licenses within 200 metres of the gym – the gym’s landlord, Aldi, Coles-owned Liquorland, Woolworths-owned BWS, and the Mitre 10 hardware store across the road (the owner, a former local publican, sells packaged alcohol to farmers and tradies).

Increase the distance to 520 metres and that number grows to 18 liquor licenses nearby, including a theatre and restaurants.

The town has 30 liquor licenses for about 8,000 residents. And five gyms.

A social media campaign and petition to stop the latest liquor outlet has attracted hundreds of supporters.

Even rival gym owner, Jo Butler, has joined the fight.

“The mental and physical health of the residents of Maryborough and surrounds is just so important and so much bigger than anything that Ben and I can compete about,” she said.

Liquor Marketing Group said it worked with independent retailers, including the Aldi property applicant, on business opportunities.

Aldi declined to comment.

The liquor store applicant, Gurpreet Kaur, did not respond to requests for comment.

The council says it needs at least $4 million to rebuild the Maryborough Outdoor Pool.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Swimming team without a pool

Maryborough’s outdoor pool is filled with swampish green water and weeds grow from cracks in the cement.

The pool precinct is closed indefinitely until the council finds the funds to demolish and rebuild it.

The town’s only indoor pool will also close between March and May for re-tiling.

“Their passion is swimming, and they can’t pursue swimming as their chosen sport because there are just not the facilities,” Maryborough Swimming Club president Heidi Bennett said.

Heidi Bennett says politicians need to deliver funds to restore the town’s outdoor pool.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Ms Bennett said the repercussions of underfunding the rural town were huge.

“We live in rural Victoria. We have dams and creeks, we have waterways. And potentially we’re creating a generation that won’t know how to swim,” she said.

She said club members were travelling an hour from Maryborough to a pool in Bendigo to train but the extra expense was taking a toll on families.

Numerous challenges

Central Goldfields Shire mayor Liesbeth Long said councillors must consider the liquor application in isolation, and not consider the fact a gym could be evicted.

“It’s emotive because it’s a liquor licence,” she said.

“Maryborough has so many issues with family violence and substance abuse.

“Do we allow another liquor venue knowing that we have these problems in our shire?”

Liesbeth Long says the shire needs more support to improve health outcomes.(ABC Central Victoria: Shannon Schubert)

Cr Long said her shire faced numerous challenges.

“We have generational poverty; we have generations of unemployment,” she said.

She said dealing with that would be made harder by the imminent loss of a state government-funded program helping disadvantaged children. 

Funding for The Nest, which is a place for young families to get referrals for services including speech therapy, occupational therapy or counselling, will run out this year.

“The program was to get in early and help these children, and to help parents be parents,” Cr Long said.

“It will be a huge loss to lose that.”

The Victorian government said it would work with the Central Goldfields Shire Council and other key stakeholders to better understand the challenges facing the region and how to support them into the future.

More needed for regions

Rural Councils Victoria commissioned a review in 2022 of potential alternative income streams for rural councils.

Mary-Ann Brown says local governments have limited capacity to raise additional funds from regional communities.(ABC Central Victoria: Olivia Sanders)

The report found no single idea or group of ideas could generate enough extra income to sustain small rural councils.

Rural Councils Victoria chair Mary-Ann Brown said state and federal governments needed to help rural and regional Victoria to address the disparity in socio-economic, health and wellbeing outcomes.

“We don’t have high sources of parking revenue or even other fees that we can charge, and yet our communities expect us to deliver services,” Cr Brown said.

“Whether it’s outdoor swimming pools, performing arts centres, maternal and child health, libraries, there’s a whole range of services that councils provide and there is a real financial squeeze on.”

Central Goldfields Shire Council will decide on the planning permit application for the Harry Brown liquor store on February 27.

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