Out to Lunch with Neil Black

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What single thing best typifies Port Macquarie? No, silly, not potholes. Tacking Point Lighthouse has given its name to a beach, suburb and numerous organisations and its image is a popular icon, despite its recent sad and sorry state. This month, Susie meets the man leading the push to restore the landmark to the condition it deserves. With it, Neil Black and helpers will probably also restore some much-needed civic pride.

Neil Black would prefer not to be written about. He’d rather this month’s profile be of a place, not a person. But the medium is the message and Black, a former academic, recognises that in order to highlight the place in question he has to stick his head up. So, in talking about the subject of our story – Port Macquarie’s Tacking Point Lighthouse and its restoration – inevitably I learn something of the man telling the tale. I discover he’s a dab hand in the kitchen. Circumstances today prevent us lunching, as is customary for this column, at The Stunned Mullet, and enjoying some of its delectable seafood. Instead, meeting him mid-afternoon, I find Black himself has prepared an attractive platter of finger food to nibble on as we chat over the dining table in his own home – appropriately, close by the lighthouse’s location. The adjacent kitchen is immaculate (“tidy kitchen, tidy mind” as the – modified – saying goes) and, arriving home later, Pauline Black vouches for her husband’s expertise as the family cook. The “circumstances” that have pre-empted our Stunned Mullet lunch turn out to be a pressing engagement with his bridge partner for their regular weekly game. I can understand the importance of that, since bridge played a significant part in transforming my husband, and bridge partner, into my ex-husband. Bridge players will understand.

Black has been officially retired for years yet is more gainfully employed than ever. Golf is also on his weekly agenda, along with work on a council consultative panel on governance (its findings on our pending election of a new set of councillors worth another story, another time), membership of our local Tertiary Education Steering Committee (developing greater university and TAFE diploma education opportunities for locals), presidency of Port Macquarie Meals Service (including Meals on Wheels), regular trips with Pauline to visit their grandchildren in Sydney, some travel, and gardening (he’s a highly-regarded horticulturist). Then there’s membership of the Rotary Club of Port Macquarie Sunrise (so named because it holds 7am breakfast meetings rather than Rotary’s usual dinner meets) and his work as co-director of its Community Service Committee – and chairman  of its Lighthouse Project Committee.

The lighthouse was adopted by the club two years ago as its community service project, quite a challenge. And not before time. Pathetically dilapidated and abused with graffiti, Port’s most recognisable landmark desperately needed care and had been comprehensively overlooked by a preoccupied council. Moreover, it was not purely the council’s territory: a trio of agencies has responsibility for the spot – the council for managing it, Crown Lands, which essentially owns it, and the RMS who keep the (now electric) beacon operating. As one observer remarked: “a great opportunity for the three agencies involved to pass the buck”. Yet the lighthouse is Australia’s third oldest, built in 1879 to the design of NSW Colonial Architect James Barnet and classified by the National Trust. More than 20 shipwrecks had happened off Tacking Point – on the “Pacific Highway” of its day – before it was built, so it quickly proved its worth as a lifesaver. Because of its elevated location the tower itself did not have to be tall. The light ran on oil until 1919 and became automated in 1920. Subsequently, the lighthouse keeper’s cottage fell into disrepair and only the foundations are now visible. In recent years, the lighthouse had become a pitiful sight, begging to be cared for, and it was Black who saw the need and acted on it to suggest his club colleagues take on the task. In retrospect, he was the saviour with all the right credentials; among them, an eye for the environment, a formidable professional reputation for getting things done, and the time and experience to tolerate and persist with the eye-wateringly slow process of achieving support from government authorities.

Graduating from Sydney Uni, Black built a distinguished career as an educationist, his remarkable achievements, including luring millions in government funds, ultimately boosting him to the highest levels of the system before retirement from his final post – Director of the North Coast Institute of TAFE, based in Port – at a youthful 60, in 2006. There’s a whole other story of his career in academe … but, with an extensive background in the Byzantine bureaucracy of TAFE, suffice to say extracting lighthouse restoration funding is right up Black’s alley. Fairly snappily on taking on the Tacking Point project, he, Rotary and the council were able to snaffle a $40,000 NSW Government grant to remove rust, repair the roof and repaint the tower. It was a big leap forward and a great improvement but only a beginning; other issues include restoration of the keeper’s cottage footings, counteracting erosion of the site, revegetation with endemic species, providing usable stairs for pedestrian traffic (currently a council sign blocks the way to using the stairs!), car parking, creating access for the disabled, and installing appropriate signage for the heritage site. Last year, Black and Rotary convened a community forum that attracted some 60 residents interested in seeing the restoration achieved. A master plan was needed, it was agreed. Meanwhile, activity on the project had uncovered two comprehensive plans (one with the help of Tacking Point Lions Club) that had been prepared years earlier and left to gather dust. (Black spreads neat, voluminous folders across the table – a comprehensive, well-ordered “library” he’s compiled and maintains for the project). With this reference material in hand, by September last year PMHC had had a revised master plan developed and after its public display in October some embellishments now include a raised viewing platform around the edge of the cottage footings, with interpretive signage, retaining walls, reclamation of the banks, and new stairs. The exterior of the tower has been restored and renewal is under way in the interior. Black is now awaiting hearing this month about two federal government grants he’s applied for via Rotary. One, for $20,000, is dependent on a PMHC $ for $ commitment to a total of $40,000, which should allow a lot of work to be done. Yet, I’m amazed to learn costing for the full project is around $335,000! “Oh yes,” Black admits calmly, “it’s a long-term project.” It’s one he seems happy to see to fruition.

One safely left with Tacking Point Lighthouse’s 21st century “caretaker”.

This story was published in issue 80 Greater Port Macquarie Focus

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