Taste Vinegar, Woolies

Six months ago, after a much-publicised, lengthy protest from a vocal and well organised portion of the community, Woolies opened its Maleny store.

Last Saturday about noon, about 10 cars were parked in the carpark at the front of the unattractive, mismatched new building. A single checkout operator studied her nails as she waited for the few customers to get to the payment part of their shopping experience. A worker in the deli served a single ham lover. Sade’s Smooth Operator crooned on the public address system.

The carpark at the Independent Grocers’ Association store up the hill was packed.

The lack of Maleny fans for the new grocery store is not about a town hating multi-national companies, hating chains or hating what they stand for. It’s just that the community did not want Woolies or any other big business in their town. Somewhere nearby would have been OK for most, just not in the main street and not in their face.

Maleny is a place where people are valued. The common good and a respect for the environment is at the forefront for most, and artistic talents and small businesses are supported. Most of the 8000 or so people from the town and its surrounds look after their village and each other.

Woolies got off on the wrong foot if it wanted to be embraced in Maleny.

It took the stance of foisting itself on the town, hoping that after some resistance it would be accepted. The developer that built the store bought the old saleyard land for $700,000 during a bizarre window of opportunity between the local government’s gazetting and ratifying the community decision to protect the land as open space.

A month before concrete was poured in August last year, Woolies knocked back an offer of $2 million that the community had managed to raise. It knocked down trees regarded as precious. It brought noise and steel and concrete to a quiet community that loved the bush and resident wildlife.

Blind Freddy could have told Woolies it would have gone further with honey than vinegar. But it was vinegar the Woolies people sprinkled around liberally in the early days and close communities don’t forget that tangy, stingy spray.

The really strange thing is, Woolies seemed to really believe that if they built it, the people would come; that community was an old-fashioned notion and one residential area was really the same as the next.

How wrong they were. And what an inspiration the Maleny community has become to all people who mourn the loss of neighbourhoods and local unity in the modern era. Filmmaker Paul Alister’s documentary, No Woolies In Maleny: The Struggle for Community Empowerment, has had a showing in Los Angeles and will be screened at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival next week.

The principles of having a right to choose how to live, how the environment is treated and which influences a community wants in its main street have universal appeal and Maleny has admirers the world over.

The real clincher for many Maleny dwellers was the dawning that Woolies not only wanted to move into town, it wanted to be the town. The projected profit it anticipated, given the large building it constructed, would mean it hoped to knock the business legs out from under the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker, sweeping all before it away.

With the local IGA giving back liberally (introducing a system where 1 per cent of profits go to the community groups nominated by residents) and honouring other local businesses as much as possible, it is the firm favourite with residents.

Cohesion and focus on the bigger picture are working for the most part in Maleny. Time will tell if they can wait the supermarket giant out until it lumbers out of town, or if the town will ultimately be divided.

Some locals have eyed the building off already and figure it would be a good arts centre space.

The rest of us will watch on, hoping Maleny can cling to its belief that it knows what is good for it and retain its sense of self. The people power victory these past six months is inspiring.

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