Small businesses are the lifeblood of our regional communities. They bring the goods and services into communities that are essential in maintaining vibrant liveable places.
From lamingtons to stockfeed, most of us measure the prosperity of our community by the breadth of businesses we have.
But it is easy to take this for granted - either as a resident or as a visitor. The regional business landscape is changing with ever more intense competition from large suppliers in regional centres. And, of course, the blessing and the curse of the internet, where local businesses can sell to the world but can also be facing direct competition from thousands of kilometres away.
It's always sad when the shops we grew up with close and the owners retire. But in time, entrepreneurs with new ideas will step in. Just as we have already embraced a move from lamingtons to lattes, we will all be invited to use telehealth and krypto currencies in the not too distant future. And as we do, we will see our main streets continue to evolve from retailers to service providers.
This turnover is a sign of renewal, of green business shoots and the long run cycles of opportunity in our regional places. Changes on our main streets can show ingenuity and entrepreneurship, not that the local economy is struggling. In many regions, these long-run cycles are compounded by drought, floods or bushfires. More than a quarter of all Australian small businesses have been touched by the bushfires. While for most it is a small impact, 11-12 per cent of businesses in New South Wales and Queensland have been greatly affected, especially those in hospitality and logistics.
For our local small businesses that have been affected by bushfires, immediate support is available. A good summary of the support available nationally is available through the federal Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman's website at www.asbfeo.gov.au/resources/bushfire-assist and through the Commonwealth Bushfire Recovery Agency's small business links page: www.bushfirerecovery.gov.au/recovery-assistance/small-business
At the Regional Australia Institute (RAI), our research has shown that the loss of residents, customers and visitors during and after these types of disasters makes small business recovery particularly hard.
Our research on recovery from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria showed intense short-term impacts on local businesses, but also found that deeper challenges are felt three to 18 months post disaster. This period is particularly difficult as it takes time to rebuild a customer base, especially when many former residents have either moved away permanently or a not yet resettled back "at home".
Both businesses and communities can use this time to reposition themselves for a prosperous future in a changing economic climate. Regrowing a business and a community can enable it to reposition itself for a new growth phase - not "business as usual" but "building back better", in the words of the United Nations Office of Disaster Risk Reduction.
Economic infrastructure in many parts of regional Australia needs urgent investment. We must use the investments flowing to disaster affected communities to reinforce the foundations for prosperity in coming decades. Regional communities depend on reliable water, transport and communications infrastructure. With these foundations we know that movement of residents and workers to regional places will continue. But without them the prospects are bleak.
Economic infrastructure ... needs urgent investment.
A key finding from the RAI's work on recovery is that community input into rebuilding decisions is vital. Community involvement is essential where replacement infrastructure is being designed, so that it can provide a catalyst for future growth in a changing physical, social and economic landscape. Getting this right means thinking ahead, recognising the nature and scale of future opportunities, and in some cases letting go of some of the past.
Support for local small businesses is more important now than ever, and each of us as residents or visitors can play a role, supporting innovation and entrepreneurship, giving new products and services a go, and welcoming the new types of customers willing to travel to find something original and authentic in regional Australia.
As a member of a community in regional Australia, we can all take the time to check in with our local business owners, catch up with what they are doing, tell everyone we know about it, and see if there's anything else we can do to help them prosper. It's in all of our interests.
Dr Kim Houghton is co-chief executive of the Regional Australia Institute