Byron is a pretty special spot. Incredible landscapes, azure oceans, a creative community and a council that, for all we may complain about them, have managed to stem the flow of commerce and development. It is a formula, reflected in only a handful of lucky townships around the country, that creates and sustains this beautiful place.
But, whether we like it or not, development is inevitable. More people will move here, businesses will be attracted by Byron’s popularity and reputation and there is just no way we can avert change. The trick, that we must all learn before any irrevocable damage occurs, is to attract and actively welcome the right kind of commerce.
Debbie Fowler and her husband Brett are no strangers to Byron Shire. Like many Melbournians, they have often escaped the more challenging Victorian weather in favour of our more temperate climes and, to little surprise, have fallen in love with the region. But, non-conformatively, they haven’t become another figure in the relentless wave of nouveau-locals. While on vacation in Byron with a collection of close and childhood friends, now silent partners in Byron Luxury Beach Houses, the Fowlers invested in a property on Shirley Street. The group could not have been better suited to property development; a financier, a builder and two shop fitters, accumulatively they had the experience and know-how to make something rather special. Originally planned as individual holiday villas, their open gardens and close community feel have attracted instead a different clientele. Group bookings have become their audience, from corporate conferences and events to wedding parties, the entire property is being booked, allowing guests to bring together up to 50 people in the one place. Rather than confined to individual rooms or apartments, they are able to share the beautiful lap pool, the open barbecue decks, the landscaped gardens, and wander freely from one home-from-home to another. Having spent so many years visiting the Northern Rivers and falling gently in love with the Bay, the party recognised the value of sensitive development and the need, albeit only an ethical one, to support the community that had provided them their investment. Employing local builders and Bangalow architect, Dan Connolly, Byron Luxury Beach Houses were open for business at the beginning of 2011 and from that moment on the business began giving back. Local stonemasons handcrafted the perimeter wall and surrounds for each villa’s external shower, rather than seeking representation from national property agents, Debbie brought in Sonya and Garth Brian of Byron Bay Holiday Rentals to manage the six four-bedroom villas, she supplied guests with Byron Bay Cookies, Byron Bay Coffee and Byron Bay teas, as well as organic, local Sanctum bathroom products, and in every area possible the group insisted on a ‘Byron only’ policy. A minor exception is the cleaning products used but with superb justification, the non-toxic, organic, eco-friendly products taking care instead of the local environment.
But the giving of Debbie, Brett and their partners goes far, far beyond sourcing local supplies. “Every year in August we shut down our complex for the Starlight Foundation, donating the accommodation to families in need,” says Debbie of her generous work. “Four villas get gifted to the families, one is for our staff and owners and then the other is for Starlight, who bring their bus, all their packs for the kids and they’re also there in case of emergency.”
But far from giving herself and her partners a hearty pat on the back, Debbie immediately leaps to the praise of the community. Each year, a collection of businesses donate time, goods and services to this fantastic cause. Byron Luxury Beach Houses provides the foundation, the base camp for the holiday to which locals can bring the gifts which would otherwise be so hard to facilitate alone. “It’s just the most amazing thing,” gushes Debbie. “Each year I am flooded with emails from people wanting to help. Kurt from GoSea Kayaking, Christian from Belongil Bistro, Ben and Belinda from the Beach Cafe, a lot of local people get involved in this project. This is our third year and we struggled at the start. Because we’re from Melbourne, to actually get involved in the community was quite difficult. But now it’s just getting bigger and bigger and each year more fantastic people want to become involved. This year, Sue, a local photographer, wants to gift our families a portrait day on the beach, Katie Connolly, a local massage therapist is coming in to work with the kids, IGA stock the fridges for the families, Earth & Sea Pizza donate vouchers – the families don’t have to spend a cent when they get here, it’s so fantastic.”
Further connecting with the locality, Nathan Oliver and Nigel Stewart of Cape Byron Conservation present the families with lighthouse tours, indigenous insight and whale watching, making the weekend even more uniquely and quintessentially Byronian. During the Starlight family weekend each year, Debbie and Brett host a cocktail party at Byron Luxury Beach Houses, allowing the families and kind-hearted locals to connect. This creates a tangible bond and greater sense of gratification for the givers, allows the family members to thank their benefactors but the evening also has one further purpose. Perhaps drunk on the joy of giving, every year the business partners select a local cause to donate to and, with no conditions, no strings attached, give a cheque to a worthy cause. Last year, Byron’s Liberation Larder received funds for much needed maintenance and Debbie is always looking to the community to find other worthy causes. Through these local connections, she has named the Byron chapter of the Disabled Surfers Association as the next benefactor, the presentation to be held at the Starlight cocktail party later this year. Despite still not being Byron residents, Debbie, Brett and their business partners have become assets to our community. There is no sense of taking, of financial gain or greed. Rather, their motivation is towards what they can give back to Byron and to people in need. Development is inevitable. Byron’s popularity is growing, just like its population, and it will continue to expand. Let’s hope that those developers are all even a little as conscientious as Debbie and Brett Fowler. Byron Luxury Beach Houses are located at 57 Shirley Street, Byron Bay.
(Garth and Sonya Brian and the team at Byron Bay Holiday Rentals)