TENTERFIELD’S new tourism manager was never going to be walking in to the job at an easy time, but Jen Gascoigne – who has been at the job for about seven weeks now - is still smiling.
“I do not want to comment about the committee,” she makes clear as she sits down for her Upclose interview.
Neither, she says, will she spell out a step-by-step plan for Tenterfield’s tourism future. That is something that will be worked out in close consultation with the new Tenterfield and District Visitors Association committee when it is elected.
Jen’s appointment came right in the middle of controversy following the declaration that an annual general meeting of the committee held late last year was unconstitutional. Following legal advice, the committee has appointed an interim committee.
The manager’s position is not a committee position, but the manager does need to work in conjunction with the committee.
Jen says she has had plenty to do in the meantime, including research, talking to people and familiarising herself with the administration and workings of Tenterfield’s Visitors Centre.
One thing Jen is already familiar with is Tenterfield.
Her maiden name is Chappell and her grandparents moved to Tenterfield in the 1960s. Her father relocated to Loloma at Leech’s Gully in 1971, and Jen grew up next to the ruins of the old Leech’s Gully school.
She went to Sir Henry Parkes Memorial Public School until the family moved to Toowoomba in 1990.
There Jen attended Fairholme College before a move to a co-educational school at Downlands in years 11 and 12.
“That was a bit of a shock,” she says. “I was going from three years at an all-girls school to a heavily male-dominated environment. I was the only girl in my geography class.
“I did better though, I’m a bit competitive and I wanted to show the dudes,” she laughs.
She had skipped year seven in the move from the NSW to the Queensland education system, and finished school at 16.
Jen then went on to take on a combined Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Education degree.
“I didn’t finish the Bachelor of Education,” she says. “I think it’s a real calling being a teacher.
“I finished the arts degree in English and drama.”
After university, she worked in retail and property management, and completed a post-graduate Diploma in Public Relations through the University of Southern Queensland. She worked for Queensland’s Main Roads Department testing computer sites and writing user-guides manuals and then completed a Bachelor of Business at Queensland University of Technology, graduating with distinction.
“They wanted me to do honours, but I wanted to get out and work,” Jen says.
“I had three degrees and a massive HECS debt.”
She got a job at ZenithOptimedia, the media arm of publicist Mojo, and worked on accounts for businesses including Queensland Rail, Weiss Frozen Foods, Hans Smallgoods, the University of Queensland brand and Bundaberg Brewed Drinks.
She says she loved working on consumer research and analysing demographics and using the information to work out trends in what people buy, use and do. Her projects ranged from budgets of $10,000 to $4 million.
But Jen has not been alone on the path that has taken her back to Tenterfield.
She first met the man who would become her husband Dennis Gascoigne when she was in year 12.
“He was a friend of my sister’s,” Jen recalls. “I was serving drinks and he was mates with Rowan, an art director from Houston, Texas.
“I thought Rowan was really hot and I didn’t look twice at Dennis.”
The two met again over the years and were married in 2007.
“He was from Warialda,” Jen says. “We used to talk about our rural backgrounds and the country connection.
“I took him to Tenterfield and he fell in love with the place too. We are both country kids and we kept visiting. Then we thought ‘let’s buy something’.”
They bought a “weekender” property near Leech’s Gully in 2007 and came down every second weekend for years.
She says it got to the point where they didn’t like heading back to the city.
“We heard the shire engineer’s job [director of engineering services] may be coming up, and we thought a lot about that and thought it would be cool,” she says.
“On the day he told me he got it, I burst into tears. He came down in late September last year and lived in our little hut.”
Jen moved down in November without a job, but soon after, the job as manager of Tenterfield Tourism came up. She applied and got the job.
“I haven’t got a tourism background, but I can bring some expertise,” she says. “I have big shoes to fill and that was very daunting.”
The two are still living in their “little hut” without a fridge or an oven, buying the ingredients for their meals each day.
They have two “fur children” – an English toy terrier and a cavalier king Charles spaniel – and some cattle, and are looking at options for extending their property.
Jen says she loves Tenterfield, and there are many strong selling points for the shire.
“I love the brand pillars of heritage, lifestyle and nature, but we can’t get stuck in the mindset of ‘this is what we have, come and see it’,” she says. “Heritage has always been a big thing for us and that is a unique selling proposition, however at the moment, I think the trends of lifestyle and nature are having their day.
“There is ecotourism with national parks, pristine weather, air quality – essentially, people are coming from the city. When they get here, they say, ‘oh my god, look at the heritage’.
“We need to get them coming back again and again and again. Then they fall in love with the place and they move here.”
She says there is also a need to look at “high value” as well as “high volume” visitors – people who are going to stay a few days and experience everything that Tenterfield has to offer, boosting the local economy.
Like herself and Dennis, she says they too may end up returning long enough not to want to leave.