Open borders: Douglas Shire Council is ready to go


Paul Bugeja

Guest Columnist

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COVID-19 has presented many challenges for the Douglas Shire council and Mayor Michael Kerr to work through.
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Next in our series on border reopenings, we speak to key figures from Douglas Shire Council about how it is managing border restrictions.

While living through COVID-19 has proven difficult for all kinds of reasons for many shire locals, it has also represented a massive challenge for council and Mayor Michael Kerr, who stepped into the role just as the border closures began kicking in with a vengeance.

However, the wider council - under CEO Mark Stoermer - and councillors - led by Kerr - have risen to the challenge, doing everything within council’s power and budget to weather the COVID storm.

- Open borders: how do businesses feel? - part one Sparrow
- Open borders: how do businesses feel? - part two LJ Hooker
- Open borders: how do businesses feel? - part three - Wavelength

Managing a (COVID) disaster

Council’s disaster management officer Jamie Kleinhans has been central to how council has managed the effects of COVID-19.

When the pandemic rolled across the shire in March, the safety of locals was paramount to any decisions council made, with Queensland Health directives being the key drivers and guidance for measures council put in place.

“Douglas Shire Council facilities such as libraries, playgrounds and customer service centres experienced various restrictions or closures, while events, more notably Port Douglas Carnivale, were cancelled,” remarked Kleinhans. 

Anyone wanting to deal with the council was encouraged to do so via phone, email, web contact and social media to reduce face-to-face encounters and therefore the potential spread of COVID-19.

This also extended to council meetings, which moved online. However, in a rare positive around the restrictions COVID-19 brought with it, this move online has proved a hit with residents and ratepayers who can now more easily access real-time decision making of the council as it happens.

A range of initiatives have also been launched, including the “Do it in Douglas” campaign which promotes the region to its own.

In terms of navigating the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19, Kleinhans said, “Council developed business continuity plans to ensure essential services would continue for the community if an outbreak was to occur.”

Luckily, no such outbreak hit the shire, and even now as the borders look set to open, Kleinhans is confident council can manage more changes and any challenges that come with this, noting, “We have successfully moved through the various stages of easing of restrictions and established a COVID-19 Working Group.”

Leading through challenging times

When in November 2019 then Councillor Michael Kerr first threw his hat in the ring in his run for the mayoral office, he can hardly have imagined that if successful in his tilt at the top job, he would have taken on the role in the midst of a global pandemic.

Yet just over six months after beating incumbent Julia Leu, he has not taken for granted this resounding win or rested on his laurels. Instead, Kerr has spent much time and energy in his first term in office helping navigate council and the shire through one the most difficult periods it has ever faced.

As part of this, Kerr has been out doing all within his mayoral power to lobby for support for the region at both the state and federal level. 

He has also liaised closely with Tourism Port Douglas Daintree (TPDD) and the Douglas Chamber of Commerce to ensure they are supported in their efforts to bouy the shire economy through the almost-stagnant economic waters COVID-19 propelled the shire into until a time when the trickle of tourists returns to a healthier flow and the economy picks up.

He is delighted with the work TPDD has put into working with Tourism Tropical North Queensland (TTNQ) to promote the region as part of a target ‘Summer in the Tropics’ campaign.

“Targeting high-value travellers, the campaign aims to change the perception of our domestic audience - that our region is too wet, hot and dangerous to visit in summer. The campaign will position the region as a summer holiday destination, driving visitation and tourist spend from November through to March.”

With the tourism industry directly supporting over 1700 FTE jobs in Port Douglas and Daintree, and indirectly supporting thousands more, Kerr hopes to see the campaign bear fruit, bringing more visitors to the tropics even during the usually slower wet season.

“We want travellers to think about some of the unique experiences that a summer in Douglas can offer, whether it’s a trip to a secluded island sand cay on the Great Barrier Reef, a wander through the oldest rainforest on the planet at Mossman Gorge or learning how to hunt using traditional Kuku Yalanji fishing techniques at Cooya Beach.

“As the warm tropical air creeps in it’s the perfect time to enjoy exotic tropical fruits and fresh local seafood, experience nature in the most active season of the year and cool off in the swathe of safe, freshwater swimming spots that you’ll only find by chatting with a local.”

And it’s not all just about enticing southern tourists up north once the borders open, with Mayor Kerr pointing to the recent launch of the Douglas Card, which “gives FNQ residents free travel on the Daintree Ferry and free entry to the Mossman Gorge, is one way we can entice people into the Douglas Shire through the summer.”

Whichever way you look at it, council appears poised with a steady hand on the keel of the shire as it moves from the choppy waters of 2020 into a more promising 2021.

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