A couple of weeks ago, after months of silence, bcu announced they would be reopening their Bowraville store.
The last bank branch in the town was closed suddenly at the end of January, "in direct response to an escalating number of security incidents, including verbal abuse and threats of physical violence directed at staff in store and in the community", the credit union said.
But there was a big catch to the June 11 announcement.
The branch would only reopen as a 'Cashless Service Hub', with cash or cheque-related banking transactions to be taken on by the staff at the post office.
"A concierge service will be provided to members at the bcu Cashless Service Hub where possible, to assist with the transition to Bank@Post services," the announcement explained.
Group CEO Andrew Hadley said he was "delighted that we have been able to find a positive solution to continue providing banking services and support that our members in the Bowraville community need".
But it seems the announcement has not delighted many in the Bowraville community.
"What's a bank without money?" The Coach House Inn's Glen Kinnear said.
"It's a dumb option. We've got BPAY on our phones, and the Post Office offers more banking services. So what exactly are they offering now?" Le Maroc Cafe's Yvette Bouzerouata said.
Phil Hall is the CEO of the Bowraville Aboriginal Land Council - an organisation with five accounts with bcu and 200 members, around 90 of which are also members of bcu.
"We worked with them a few years ago when they wanted to decrease the number of days they were open from five to three," he said.
"But paper banks are no good for anybody. We can't get a float or change. And it's very difficult to do transactions when we often deal with large sums of money.
My members are really upset. Not all are tech-savvy. A lot don't have a phone or a computer. And to get to a bank now they have to catch a bus to Macksville or Nambucca. A lot of elders don't feel safe going on buses.
Dean Brown is the manager of the Bowraville IGA and said the proposed solution won't help his business at all.
"Most of our elderly customers cash cheques. In order to do that now they have to go to Macksville, and then while they're there they also do their shop. I don't know if we'll ever get them back - it's hard to change people's routines after they get into them," he said.
"And it was so handy for us to just run across the road. Now we have to drive into Macksville or Nambucca to deposit money or get change.
"But for security purposes we can't be doing that every day. We had to increase our insurance premiums as a result of the increased risk.
"And there were a few instances where we went to the Macksville branch for change and they didn't have enough so we were forced to go to Nambucca instead - that's an hour and a half round trip for change."
A few years ago Dean worked for bcu, and had, on occasion, worked at the Bowra store as relief staff.
"99 per cent of the transactions were cash-based, so this cashless 'solution' is just ridiculous," he said.
"If the staff aren't doing cash transactions, I don't know what they'll actually be doing. There's no loan officer here - they send all the paperwork to another store to be followed up."
And when we spoke to Mayor Rhonda Hoban about bcu's Cashless Service Hub solution, she said it raised more questions than it answered.
"Is the ATM going to remain? Is the current bcu branch going to remain open? Council is yet to receive a formal response explaining what the new arrangements will mean for residents and businesses, and how they will differ from what's currently in place," she said.
"But the biggest question I have is about the reason for the closure in the first place. Bowraville is a beautiful community and a lovely place to live.
"I attend the Police Community Safety Precinct Meetings in which crime statistics are put up specific to each town. And based on those statistics, per capita Bowra is one of the safer places to live on the Mid North Coast."
This sentiment was echoed by a vast majority of the people in the community we spoke with.
Not a single business owner we contacted said they had concerns about their personal safety or the safety of their business.
Bowraville Chamber Of Commerce president Paul Nowland said he hadn't "heard any experiencing abuse or threats of violence".
And except for a recent spike in drug-related issues (which locals said was isolated to one or two households, and had been largely dealt with by police) noone had noticed an increase in crime or abusive behaviour.
"The people responsible are no longer here. And the police have been nothing but helpful," Dean said.
"Bowraville is a great little community," The Coach House Inn's Michelle Ussher said.
We've never had a thing stolen, never felt threatened, and we've always been treated with respect.
"If there was trouble at bcu, we would know - we can see straight over there. And they've got screens there anyway."
Chris Dyer runs the post office and said while she doesn't doubt that the staff at bcu had felt threatened at one point, that she hasn't heard of anyone else having problems.
"It's a nice, quiet town. And we've never had any problems," she said.
"I think, truth be told, they were going to close it anyway."
Phil agrees and believes the security issue has been "blown out of proportion".
They sold us a line with the merger, promising that nothing would change. I think they've been talking with forked tongues.
Mayor Hoban said she noted this wasn't the first time bcu had cited "issues of safety" to justify closing down a "small rural branch".
The ABC reported in April 2013 that bcu's Coramba branch was set to close "because of concern about staff and customer security".
The mayor also noted that other banks had closed branches in the past few years in Macksville and Nambucca, but that they had cited "rationalisation" as the justification.
What the statistics say
According to the March quarterly report from the Bureau Of Crime Statistics And Research (BOCSAR), incidents of crime have decreased over the past year in nearly every area within the 2449 postcode, which includes the town of Bowraville.
There were 39 incidents of assault recorded in the year to March 2020, down from 54 the previous year. Only 17 assaults over the past year were not related to domestic violence.
In comparison, the 2448 postcode (which includes Nambucca Heads) recorded nearly three times that number at 112 incidents of assault, while 2447 (including Macksville) recorded 84.
Bowraville recorded no incidents of robbery in the year to March. And there were only two recorded incidents of theft from a retail store, compared with 53 in the greater Macksville area, and 32 around Nambucca Heads.
There were 17 recorded instances of intimidation, stalking and harassment in 2449, two fewer than the year before. And 10 of which were domestic violence-related.
Drug offences was one of the only categories to have increased over the past year (17, up from 6 in previous year), with more incidents of cultivation and possession of cannabis, and possession of amphetamines recorded.
Motor vehicle theft (15, up from 7) and break and enter non-dwelling (6, up from 1) were two other areas in which incidents rose.
But the combined total of incidents of theft in 2449 for the year to March is 81, compared with 441 in the Nambucca postcode, 281 in the Macksville postcode, and 1263 in Port Macquarie.
What bcu said
We asked bcu some follow-up questions about the proposed arrangement, and the justification for closing the store. Here's what bcu General Manager Mike Ribbens said:
- Will the ATM remain in place, or will it be taken away?
Yes, consistent with our commitment, the ATM will remain in place.
Business owners and community members have told Guardian News they would like to see the ATM serviced more, especially considering there will no longer be cash services available at the bank.
Each business owner we spoke with mentioned that the ATM is frequently running out of money, or is 'out of service', which has a negative impact on their business.
"The ATM is constantly out of service - we have people coming in here (to the IGA) to take cash out. First thing in the morning we just don't have the funds, so we then have to cop the flack," Dean Brown said.
Phil Hall said his members often try to use the bank to take out money for school lunches, but find the ATM is down.
"It puts a lot of strain on the community when that happens," he said.
"They also need to have options to take out $5, $10, and $20 notes from the ATM. A lot of the time I get whacked with a string of people with $50 notes and I've just got no change, so I get pissed off and so do the customers," Yvette Bouzerouata said.
- How will businesses in the area bank their takings or collect change for operating their cash registers?
Businesses are able to visit either our bcu Macksville or Nambucca Heads store to collect change and bank their takings, including the use of the stores night safe facilities. We are working with local businesses to arrange for any businesses that wish to use the night safe facilities to be issued with the required access and are waiving the usual fees associated with this.
- If cash services are now being subsumed by Australia Post, doesn't bcu's solution push the perceived risk on to staff at AusPost?
bcu had an existing arrangement with Australia Post allowing our members to use Bank@Post services and they indicated they were both willing and able for this to continue. We are now making these transactions "fee free" for our Bowraville members.
- bcu has cited an "escalating number of security incidents, including verbal abuse and threats of physical violence directed at staff in store and in the community" as a reason for the temporary closure and the cashless services hub solution. But crime statistics, conversations with local police and also with community members, all contradict that assertion. If there was an escalation of incidents, why were they not reported to police?
While we acknowledge that this situation is not reflective of the broader Bowraville community, the circumstances confronted specifically by our employees have been extremely serious. They have been reported to the police who have been very helpful in their interactions with us. While the nature of the threats made to employees over a number of occasions are clearly unacceptable from a work place safety and employee welfare perspective, our advice has been that they do not necessarily fall into the category of a criminal offence. We believe that this would explain why they are not necessarily reflected in any official crime statistics.
When Guardian News reported on the closure on February 10, we were told by Mr Ribbens that the "threats of criminal activity" were understood by bcu as "really a community-wide issue".
We have also been told by a local business operator (and confirmed by several others) that at a community meeting held shortly after the closure, it was revealed that police had no reports made by bcu in their records.
Business owners have also commented that communication from bcu about the closure has been sparse and disappointing.
"They told us we'd have an answer within ten days, but it was a good three months before anything happened," Dean Brown said.
Some have questions whether all options had been explored by the bank.
"I've been here 11 years, I work seven days a week and I don't have a guard or a security screen - neither do several other businesses which have operated successfully here for years," Yvette Bouzerouata said.
"I don't feel worried about my safety. But if they do, why don't they think outside the box and employ men to work there?"
- How has the solution taken into account the large portion of the community still primarily using the bank for cash services?
We have recognised that some members of the local community have historically used cash in their banking transactions, which is why we have put in place additional support to help them make the transition to cashless transactions, which are increasingly used by the majority of bcu members. It is for this reason that the new arrangements include the introduction of a concierge service for members at the Bowraville Cashless Service Hub to where possible to assist with their transition to Bank@Post services for cash and cheque related transactions. Bowraville members who choose to use Australia Post's Bank@Post services to complete cash transactions can now do so fee-free.
But it's clear the 'transition' will be painful for many in the community.
Chris and Russell Dyer said there have been a number of elderly locals confused about the new arrangement.
All transactions at the post office must be made using a bank card - which they say not all elderly locals carry, or are familiar with.
"They do have a bit of trouble using these EFTPOS machines," Chris said.
They also said the post office doesn't carry a lot of cash, so large cash transactions were not possible.
And cheques can be used to pay for bills and deposited into bank accounts using a bank card, but they cannot be cashed at post offices.
Many locals were in the habit of paying their council rates and water bills at the bank. Because Nambucca Valley Council is not registered with AusPost, locals who wish to continue to pay in person will now need to do so at council or at the Macksville or Nambucca branch.
There's still no word from bcu announcing when its 'Cashless Service Hub' will reopen.
"We will advise members of a confirmed date for re-opening once the planned security upgrades to the premises have been completed," the June 11 media release read.
Bowraville Chamber of Commerce president Paul Nowland said:
"The Chamber would like to see the Bowra Branch re-open as a full service bank. The Bowraville Chamber will continue to advocate for the businesses and people of Bowraville, keeping open communication with Mike as we move forward. We will have our monthly meeting (this) week and the BCU will be on the agenda."
Some in the community are considering their legal options.
"We've been deprived of our rights as members to do business. Bowra Aboriginal Land Council is pursuing all legal avenues now to see that bcu provides the service they said they would," Phil Hall said.
Others intend to make their disappointment known by withdrawing their business.
"We're thinking of transferring to another bank," Dean Brown said.
We wanted to stay with bcu - support a local bank. But there's only so long you can stay with a bank if they're no longer convenient and they're not willing to support Bowraville.