Rural Aid Australia, Media Release, 26 April 2021
A derelict building filled with pigeons, broken windows and damp, rotting timber isn’t usually the definition of Art Deco beauty. When that building is scored for an astonishing $1 though and revived, its transformation is just one of many putting Leeton on the map as the Art Deco capital of regional Australia.
The agricultural town of Leeton, NSW sits between Wagga Wagga and Griffith and has a population of 11,500. It’s also the home of Australia’s rice industry, with 98 per cent of rice grown in the Riverina region. The SunRice head office and processing plant is located in Leeton and the industry supports 600 permanent jobs and generates around $4m in the local community.
While farming and Art Deco aren’t usually synonymous, with Jackie Kruger at the helm, Leeton’s proving it can do both. Jackie’s been the general manager of Leeton Council since 2015. She moved to a town full of glazed windows, mosaic doors and steeped parapets and realised they needed to make the most of the beautiful assets they already had.
There’s more than 45 Art Deco era properties on the town’s main street. The state heritage listed Roxy Theatre (1930), the Hydro Motor Inn with its paintings of Leeton’s history on the walls and the Hydro Hotel (1919) which used to host special guests for dances and parties, are some of the town’s hero pieces.
The old water conservation and irrigation commission building which housed the engineers who created the Murrumbidgee irrigation scheme is another of Leeton’s grand features today. But in 2015, it was the same rundown building that housed those pesky pigeons.
While some had tried to purchase it for commercial purposes, the state government at the time had a valuation on the property that couldn’t be met. The building sat empty and its condition continued to worsen over time. Jackie knew something had to change.
“Council started to get a bit worried about this because we could identify that it was so significant,” she said.
“So we put in a cheeky offer to the government of one dollar and said, ‘Look, you’re not going to release this to the commercial side of the world to do something with, how about giving it to council for $1?” Jackie Kruger, Leeton Shire Council general manager.
Of course, it didn’t hurt she knew someone about to tuck into a barbecue with the deputy premier and he was able to make sure their offer letter made it directly into the right pocket. When the news arrived that their bold move had paid off, excitement quickly turned to nerves.
“I thought ‘oh my goodness, now we’ve got a serious liability that we have to do something with’,” Jackie recalls.
Plenty of hard work and timely drought funding came together to revive the building and today it houses Leeton’s newest cultural experience. The Leeton Museum and Gallery showcases Leeton’s water story and the refurbished building also doubles as a gallery space for travelling exhibitions.
While the impressive buildings are some of the town’s standout centrepieces, in true Art Deco form, the finer details are not forgotten. A makeover of 24 buildings in the main street is on the council of Leeton Shire’s agenda this year to emphasise the town’s existing assets for economic development purposes.
Jackie said the project has been embraced by shop owners who are contributing 40 per cent of the cost, with council putting in the remaining 60 per cent.
“We think that when it’s all finished, it’s like having a big smile with a mouth full of beautiful white teeth,” Jackie Kruger
“At the moment parts of these buildings are different colors so it will really help to enhance the town and build community pride and also build the potential of our Art Deco theme being a real tourist draw card.”
Leeton’s determination to position itself as the Art Deco capital of regional Australia doesn’t just end with its buildings – even the Christmas decorations are getting in on the act. Their specially designed Art Deco era decorations are a point of pride with the local community and ensure the town’s branding is on track.
And while the town has shared its historic treasures during two Art Deco festivals, the event was relaunched in a new format two years ago and turned out to be a huge success.
Jackie admits the first two festivals were ‘just okay’ so when they decided to give it another crack, she said it had to be ‘whizz bang’. It ended up bringing more than 4000 people to Leeton, some from as far as Western Australia, and nailed the wizz bang brief.
Shop owners decorated their windows, a unique treasure hunt was held, and 1920s flair was celebrated during a night of roulette and murder mysteries. There may have been some initial scepticism but Jackie says that quickly disappeared.
“A lot of people even said to me in the beginning of the relaunch of the festival, ‘Why are we wasting our time on this?’ But actually, by the end of the festival, everybody’s saying, “Now we know why we’re doing it. It really adds value. Let’s do it again.” Jackie Kruger
If you missed out on the festival’s relaunch in 2019, this year is your chance. The Leeton Art Deco Festival will run from July 2-4.
It may be a traditional farming community but there’s no doubt that the people of Leeton are also embracing their arts, tourism and festival side. As shops and buildings continue to form part of that perfect smile, enthusiasm has spread throughout the community. Jackie said it’s through education and good old-fashioned fun that Leeton is wearing the Art Deco capital crown.