An experienced performer with several regular gigs around Melbourne, Acton ‘Ace’ Wickens (right), usually gets a great response from his audiences, but that wasn’t the case last week when a South Gippsland Shire Council employee saw him play on a Leongatha street.

By Kirra Grimes

THEY claim they want to “revitalise” Leongatha, but it’s come to light that the South Gippsland Shire Council has been actively discouraging individuals trying to do just that.
Council plans to spend $2.7 million to redevelop the Leongatha CBD, in response to their own surveys revealing community views that the main streetscape (Bair Street) is “boring,” “bleak,” “grey,” and “has no heart”.
Consultations back in 2015 drew out suggestions including to “make the street more alive with activity,” “provide entertainment that draws people from other areas,” and “encourage busking, which creates a vibrant atmosphere and allows talent and creativity to grow”.
But just last week, council reportedly drove off a young musician attempting to bring some of the very ambience many apparently feel the town is lacking.
Twenty nine year old Acton Wickens, an experienced singer-songwriter and guitarist who performs under the name ‘Ace,’ was busking outside Bakers Delight last Tuesday, September 10, when he was approached by an individual identifying themselves as a council employee.
According to Ace’s mother, Ruby dairy farmer Debbie-Sue Austin, this individual not only told Ace to pack up and leave, as he didn’t possess the required permit, they added that applying for the $120 permit would be “pointless” as local businesses “don’t want you busking in the street”.
Debbie-Sue says in many years of busking and playing gigs throughout northern Victoria and the Melbourne CBD, and even a couple of previous attempts in Leongatha, this was the first time her son had come up against such a negative response.
So upset was she by the incident, she took to social media on Tuesday afternoon to find out whether or not Council’s point of view truly reflected community sentiment.
Her post on Facebook’s ‘Leongatha Community Noticeboard,’ attracted over 70 comments, the majority from local business owners and other individuals expressing support for Ace and his efforts to create some “artistic, and friendly entertainment to liven up the town a little”.
The responses also included reports of similar negative experiences from several local musicians, including Janine Garvey, who maintained Council “don’t encourage the arts, or the atmosphere it brings,” and also remarked on the “ridiculously high” cost of busking permits in South Gippsland, in comparison to other local government areas.
Speaking to the Sentinel-Times in the days following the post, Debbie-Sue said it was “a pity someone trying to create a nice vibe and a bit of atmosphere” received such an “unwelcoming” response from Council.
Especially given their stated objective of revitalising Leongatha, Debbie-Sue said it was in Council’s interest to encourage activities like busking, as it not only helped build up the confidence of young local performers; it could bring other social and economic benefits to a town.
“Busking is the way a lot of young people get their start,” she said.
“Ace has just recorded his first single; he’s about to go on a tour up the New South Wales Coast. And it’s all happened through busking – people have seen him on the street, supported him, given him gigs.
“On that day in Leongatha, he’d been busking for about an hour and half before the council worker shut him down.
“He had a fantastic response. He made about $130, which he was going to spend on groceries at the local supermarket – he always spends the money in the town where he makes it – and he brightened people’s days by bringing a bit of colour and life to the street.
“People were coming up to him not just giving him money, but thanking him and saying things like ‘we need this sort of stuff’.
“When I’ve watched him in the past, people of all ages stand there tapping their toes and saying ‘good on you mate’.”
“He’s even had people sit down next to him and confide in him, because that’s the power music can have.”
The Sentinel-Times contacted Council for comment and the response, from Manager of Regulatory Services Jamie Thorley, was that Council “had received complaints from numerous
businesses throughout our Shire regarding buskers obstructing footpaths or deterring people from entering businesses.”
Mr Thorley said Council was “supportive of busking within our Shire, where a current permit has been granted” and that the $120 permit fee would be coming up for review as part of a larger review into the shire’s Local Law.
“Some consideration is being given to changing this fee amount,” Mr Thorley said.
“We are looking at our neighbouring councils to compare fees and see how they encourage busking within their municipalities,” he said.