If I was asked to choose a highlight from the past twenty-four years in Bowen I mightn’t end up picking the six weeks or so in 2007 when Baz Luhrmann, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and almost every Australian actor of any significance were in town, along with somewhere between ten and thirty thousand visitors over a six-week period, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d immediately rule out of contention.

We’ll never really know exactly how many visitors there were, since the methods that were used to get an indication of numbers were haphazard to say the least, and on what was probably the busiest day there was only one person on hand to try to count the visitors.

The fact that the movie was being shot made a lot of people turn off the highway or plan day trips to the set and they brought a hell of a lot of money into the town on top of the millions spent by the film crew.

Admittedly, where the money landed was far from uniform, and quite a bit of it probably went straight out of town again, but the catering bill alone would have been staggering and there were all sorts of other items of expenditure down to Ms Kidman’s evening fish and chips.

More particularly, particularly in the first couple of days, the filming generated the sort of publicity that money can’t buy.

If you were to look for a reason for the whole thing, you wouldn’t need to go too far past the fact that Baz Luhrmann found about three hectares of open space beside a wharf when all he’d been looking for was a jetty.

Of course, there were other factors involved, but if the vacant land hadn’t been there the bits that were supposed to represent downtown Darwin in the late thirties and early forties would probably have been constructed on a sound stage at Fox Studios in Sydney.

That more or less explains why it happened, but what lessons can be drawn from the experience?

For a start, if one particular building project had gone ahead it wouldn’t have happened at all because there would have been a block of units on top of the land that was used for the cattle yards.

That’s not to suggest that we should avoid construction projects because we might get movie sets instead. Far from it. As far as anyone can tell, what happened on that block at the bottom of Herbert Street is something unique in the history of the Australian film industry, and it’s something that, more than likely, will never be repeated.

On the other hand it does suggest that once you put a building on a block of land it becomes a commercial, industrial or residential site. Up until that happens, the block of land could, temporarily, be anything.

It has been suggested that there’s are plenty of people in the local community who regard a vacant block of land as wasted until it has been sold to somebody and a building has been erected on it. Around Bowen there is a lot of vacant land that people would like to put buildings on.

On the other hand, if substantial chunks of that land are kept vacant there just might, at some time in the future, be a previously-unforeseen temporary usage that could turn out to be very rewarding.

Point one: Vacant land isn’t necessarily being wasted.

Over the six weeks there were more than a hundred local people who volunteered to talk to visitors to town, explain what was going on and what the visitors were looking at, and generally promote the town. I was one of the volunteers, and therefore have a pretty fair idea of the visitors’ reactions, both to the film and the town itself.

I would have liked a dollar for every comment along the lines of “We usually drive straight past, but we heard about the movie and decided to pop in for a look.” I reckon the proceeds would easily cover the cost of a dozen bottles of good wine. Maybe not a dozen Grange, but certainly a fair bit more upmarket than a dozen el-cheapo cleanskins.

Point two: If we can encourage people to turn off the highway and spend some time in town they’ll probably spend some money as well, but we need to give them a reason to make the detour.

It has been suggested that reason might well come when the Front Beach redevelopment, which will definitely be a major asset to the town, is finished. There’ll be some movie content incorporated into the design, but the presence of a nice beachfront with a few pictures of the movie won’t necessarily be enough to prompt people to turn off the highway.

The town’s big selling points in this regard are the beaches and a few other features that need to be enhanced so that word of mouth and some well-directed advertising along the highway and in the national media will encourage people to venture off the highway.

It would be even better if we could encourage them to stay overnight, grab dinner and breakfast and, most importantly tell all their friends and relatives that Bowen is worth a visit and, more importantly a stopover.

Point three: The Front Beach development is all very well, but we need to keep an eye on what is happening along the beach front from Flagstaff Hill around to the mouth of the Don and in the current downtown area.

If you’re going to try to encourage people to come into town it helps to have a reason like the movie to encourage them to make the effort. That’s where annual events like the Fishing Classic are important, and we need more of them. The difficulty, of course, is finding a couple of events that don’t already have an equivalent elsewhere in our part of the world..

Those community events end up relying on Volunteers and other unpaid or subsidised labour (where the wages are covered by someone else), and what they’re willing to do will vary from Volunteer to Volunteer.

Personally, I was quite happy with the movie Volunteer gig, but haven’t been racing out to offer my services anywhere else. As indicated elsewhere, I don’t need any more obsessions and my interests tend to be specific rather than general and I don’t like asking people for things. The movie Volunteer gig involved a fair bit of time over a limited period of time, which suited me down to a “T.”

Those special events don’t necessarily have to be extravaganzas. Anything that brings groups of people into town, encourages them to stay overnight (or longer) and spend money on meals and so on would fill the bill, but if they’re the sorts of events that will attract crowds rather than groups the benefits to the community will multiply accordingly.

Point four: If we’re wanting to encourage people to visit the town, a couple of extra special events slotted into the calendar would go a long way towards creating the situation where visitors to town might be tempted to return, possibly at other times of the year.