22 December 2023

2023 Year in Review: News from around the Riverina

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It was a year of varied local news across the Riverina, as the region voted No to the referendum and we queried the fate of the Murrumbigee mill, celebrated the Conservatorium of Music opening, observed wild times at Griffith’s community radio station and pondered the withdrawal of Ferrero Rocher from the region.

But one extraordinary story drew all eyes across the Riverina and further afield. Find out what it was in our list of the region’s top 15 news stories for the year.

15. Riverina Conservatorium of Music is all set for a new beginning
by Shri Gayathirie Rajen

Riverina Conservatorium of Music staff and board are happy to finally have the official opening of the facility. Photo: Shri Gayathirie Rajen.

The official opening of Riverina Conservatorium of Music’s new state-of-the-art facility was 10 years in the making.

Situated at 1 Simmons Street, the new building overlooks the Wollundry Lagoon. Prior to the new site’s completion in February 2023, the RCM was located at the deteriorating CSU South Campus building.

The official opening was held on in July, attended by a host of dignitaries including RCM chair Dr Andrew Wallace, Independent Member for Wagga Wagga Dr Joe McGirr, Wagga Wagga City Council Mayor Dallas Tout, Cr Amelia Parkins, Aunty Cheryl Penrith, Regional Conservatorium president David Francis and former Wagga Mayor Greg Conkey.

14. A resounding NO from the Riverina as Australia rejects the Voice
by Claire Fenwicke and Chris Roe

Over 70 per cent of the Riverina voted No as Australians cast their votes on Saturday. Photo: Chris Roe.

The Riverina delivered a resounding No to enshrining an Indigenous Voice to parliament in October with over 70 per cent voting against the proposal.

The ACT was the only jurisdiction in the country to deliver a Yes majority as Australian Electoral Commission results showed Australia had rejected Indigenous constitutional recognition.

13. Security blocks ex-presenter as new board named at fiery Griffith community radio AGM
by Oliver Jacques

Man standing to speak with security guard inset

Veteran presenter John Bortolazzo says there is light at the end of the tunnel. Inset – security shuts the door on Lance Perry. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Two security guards stood at the front door and blocked an ex-member from entering. An ex-president made allegations of financial irregularity and was told to “get a life”.

An attendee stormed out, slamming the door behind her while a teary ex-presenter alleged Italians had been expelled from the station.

Accusations, tears, tongue lashings and a new board appointment highlighted a tense Griffith 2MIA community radio station AGM that was still able to finish on a positive note. Here’s what happened.

12. Aussie made electric aircraft will get you from Wagga to Canberra in 35 minutes
by Chris Roe

AMSL strategy and planning director Russell Hoore and propulsion lead Andrew Gong

AMSL strategy and planning director Russell Hoore and propulsion lead Andrew Gong in the Vertiia cabin at Wagga’s CSU Playhouse. Photo: Chris Roe.

The future of aero transport landed in the Riverina at the Committee 4 Wagga’s ‘Wagga Wagga: Beyond 2050’ event.

“I don’t really like to use the term flying cars,” said engineer Andrew Gong as he explained the fundamentals of the ‘Vertiia’ electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft at Wagga’s CSU Playhouse.

“We’ve come from a more aviation background where we’re taking aircraft knowledge and technology and expertise and applying new things like electrification and hydrogen onto our aircraft.”

11. Anyone in the Riverina got a few spare mil? You could buy this one from a ‘motivated’ seller
by Chris Roe

old flour mill

The Mill is back on the market and “shovel-ready” after floundering for more than two decades. Photo: Chris Roe.

Will the old Murrumbidgee Mill site, which is now an abandoned eyesore, ever be transformed into an attractive and practical community asset? We asked the question: What on earth is happening with Wagga’s iconic Murrumbidgee Mill?

Despite the ill-fated project being mired in a legal wrangle between Australian-based developers and Chinese investors, we heard rumblings that things would soon get moving and there were rumours of an imminent sale.

10. Shoppers quick to check out new Estella FoodWorks as long-awaited supermarket takes centre stage
by Jarryd Rowley

two people at supermarket checkout

Reddrop Group COO Lincoln Wymer and store manager Gemma Webster welcomed customers to Estella FoodWorks during its soft launch on Tuesday. Photo: Jarryd Rowley.

After almost 12 years of planning, Estella now has its first supermarket after Wagga’s fourth FoodWorks opened for business.

The new supermarket, which opened its doors in September, is the first operating storefront at the recently completed Estella Central Shopping Centre.

The FoodWorks branch includes a new deli with meat supplied by the Lake Village Butchery, a sushi bar and a bottle shop.

9. Parents and staff fuming after being blindsided by Principal’s sacking
by Jarryd Rowley

photo montage of school, principal and email quote

The Wagga Wagga Christian College board chose to remove principal Phillip Wilson from his position over a differing view of the future of the school. Photo: Chris Roe.

The Wagga Wagga Christian College found itself in damage control following the board’s decision to sack school principal Phillip Wilson.

The surprise move to oust Mr Wilson after almost five and a half years was met with a backlash on social media as parents, staff and past students expressed their frustration at being kept in the dark.

Parent Phoebe Christison was one of those who called out the board on Facebook, demanding that it “be held accountable and questioned over this decision” and, launching a petition on Change.org.

8. Griffith teacher wins university medal with near-perfect grade point average
by Oliver Jacques

Man with hydraulic testing device

Keith Wells using his hydraulic testing apparatus. Photo: Supplied.

A high school teacher from Griffith has won the 2022 University of Southern Queensland (USQ) University Medal, the tertiary institution’s most prestigious award.

Keith Wells received the medal after completing a Bachelor of Engineering honours degree with a grade point average (GPA) of 6.952, achieving a high distinction in every subject he completed bar one – in which he earned a distinction. It is understood to be one of the highest GPAs in USQ’s 56-year history.

Remarkably, he completed his entire degree remotely from his Griffith home, balancing his studies with a teaching job at Murrumbidgee Regional High School (MRHS).

7. Chocolate maker abandons Riverina hazelnut tree development, blaming climate
by Oliver Jacques

The Dellapool farm with a box of chocolates

The Dellapool property owned by Ferrero Group is advertised for sale. Photo: CBRE Agribusiness.

Italian chocolate maker Ferrero Group is selling its $70 million hazelnut development in the Riverina, citing the region’s climate as a key factor behind its decision.

The departure comes just five years after its subsidiary Agri Australis celebrated planting its one millionth hazelnut tree at the farm at Dellapool Road, near Narrandera, in 2018.

“Ferrero Group confirms it will discontinue its pilot program trialling the production of hazelnuts in the Riverina region of NSW,” a company spokesperson told Region. “Ferrero has made considerable effort in making the project viable, thus, this decision has not been made lightly.

6. Vortex Entertainment takes adventure to new heights in the Riverina
by Chris Roe

Co-owner Adam Drummond takes on the climbing walls at Vortex Entertainment. Photo: Chris Roe.

The cat is finally out of the bag with the revelation that Wagga’s new state-of-the-art family entertainment venue is open for the holidays.

Vortex Entertainment boasts high ropes, Ninja Warrior courses, climbing walls, bumper cars, play areas and more.

“The germination of the idea came from a frustration with having to split the kids up across multiple places when we wanted to take them out for an activity,” explained co-owner Adam Drummond.

5. A red-belly in the chassis puts Riverina snake catcher to the test
by Chris Roe

red-belly snake under car

Josh Thompson admits to a few nervous moments while removing a large snake from under a car. Photo: Josh’s reptile relocation.

Joshua Thompson has only been a snake catcher in Wagga for a few months, but he’s just become a viral sensation after posting a video of his latest dramatic reptile rescue.

Images of Josh poking around under a vehicle searching for a large red-bellied black snake have been widely shared from Wagga Wagga Thumbs UP Thumbs DOWN.

“Going under a car, where you don’t know where a snake is, is a particularly terrifying moment,” he said wryly.

4. NSW teachers to receive $10,000 pay increase in historic deal
by Oliver Jacques

Teachers protesting against Chris Minns

A teacher protest against NSW Premier Chris Minns at Griffith Airport is seen by union representative Brett Bertalli as a factor in swaying the NSW Government. Photo: NSW Teachers Federation.

The starting annual salary for teachers in NSW is set to be raised to $85,000, while experienced educators could earn as much as $122,000, under a historic new deal between the NSW Teachers Federation and the NSW Government.

The peak union body announced it had reached an in-principle Heads of Agreement with the Government to tackle an ongoing teacher shortage by making beginning and top-of-scale teachers the nation’s best paid.

The new pay deal follows weeks of protests by teachers, many of whom were incensed with the Government’s previous four-year proposal of a 2.5 per cent increase in years two, three and four, which was viewed as a reneging of a pre-election commitment on teachers’ pay.

3. Dashcam footage captures final moments of teen pursuit
by Shri Gayathirie Rajen

Dramatic dashcam footage captured the moment the vehicle rolled. Photo: @kirristammers/TikTok.

Extraordinary footage uploaded to TikTok shows the final moments of a police pursuit that came to an end at Forest Hill.

The footage from a rear facing camera was posted to TikTok by @kirristammers and captures the seconds after police deployed road spikes for a second time.

The stolen Holden SUV can be seen passing a highway patrol vehicle before swerving violently and clipping a parked car before careening across the road, narrowly avoiding a truck and almost colliding with the camera owner’s car.

2. The mysterious rise and fall of Griffith winery Sans Pareil Estate
by Oliver Jacques

Sans Pareil Estate was located in Hanwood. Photo: Supplied.

Opening a new winery in Griffith is a brave move.

The town is home to viticulture giants – Calabria Family Wines, Casella Wines and De Bortoli Wines – that have dominated the industry for generations.

But Griffith’s Sans Pareil Estate appeared to have established a multi-million export business within four years of opening its doors. But the sudden collapse of the company that is alleged to owe the Australian Taxation Office more than $30 million has seen the liquidator question whether the export business existed at all.

1. McLaren P1 supercar sold for $1.47 million in liquidation of Griffith winery
by Oliver Jacques

Inserts of Daniel Riccardio and Aaron Salvestrin with McLaren P1

A McLaren P1 supercar, similar to the one in this photo, was sold as part of the liquidation of Sans Pareil winery. It had a door sill signed by F1 star Daniel Ricciardo (insert left; Aaron Salvestrin, insert right). Photo: Supplied.

An imported McLaren P1 supercar signed by Formula One star Daniel Ricciardo was sold as part of the liquidation of a Griffith winery that has gone into administration, an exclusive Region investigation has revealed.

Aaron Salvestrin launched the winery Sans Pareil Estate in Hanwood in 2018. The company went into liquidation in October 2022.

In the Sydney-based insolvency firm Chifley Advisory’s report to creditors obtained by Region, the winery allegedly owes the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) more than $32 million. As the case unfolds, there have been eye-popping details about luxury cars and a non-existent business operation.

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