Bellingen Community Markets celebrates 40 magnificent years of community, culture, and diversity on Saturday 19 December 2020. Now one of the oldest, largest, and most diverse markets on the east coast, Bello Markets now boasts well over 200 stalls each month, which is a truly remarkable achievement.
Like so many community initiatives, the success of our market is primarily attributable to the ongoing commitment, cohesiveness and tenacity of the volunteers. This is particularly true, considering the difficulties encountered and the subsequent community unrest caused by the market’s inception in 1978.
John Dorbis is one such volunteer, who has been involved with the Bellingen Community Markets since its earliest days. (John is pictured above, 6th from right, amongst the hard-working market volunteers). Having been a stall-holder, manager during the 80’s and 90’s, committee member and now president of the BSRA (Bellingen Shire Residents Association), which is the governing body of the BCM (Bellingen Community Market), John’s commitment and passion is without question. So who better to give us all of the stories about our iconic market………
John what motivated your involvement with the Bellingen Community Markets back in its earliest days?
I moved to the shire in 1980 from Sydney where I use to be a stall holder at Balmain markets in the late 1970s.
On moving to the area and living at Repton we heard on the community grapevine there was a market in town. I had a couple of stalls at the time selling mostly bric’a’brac. The market then was in Church St (Ambulance station end) when the road was closed at 12 noon for the market to operate for a few hours.
I’ve been involved with the markets ever since.
The earliest days of the markets were fraught with contention and community division. Can you give us some of that early tumultuous history?
The first Bellingen Market was held on Sunday 23rd October 1977 by the Bellingen Art and Craft in the grounds of their Hyde Street premises at the Bellingen Community Centre (the old school-house which is now the Local Shire Council complex). The aim was to gauge interest and demand for local produce and handcrafts.
The inaugural market was quite a success, bringing many people from outlying communities into the town. This coincided with the time when people seeking a more ‘alternative lifestyle’ were moving into the region. The markets probably highlighted the cultural divide between the traditional farmers and the newbies, causing problems and conflicts. Headlines in the local paper (Courier Sun) of the time heralded: ‘Markets splits town business and council’.
An application was made to council for a second market in November 1977 but was not approved. In its place a ‘Rainforest and Natural History’ information day was held. Further representation was made to council for a December market. Permission was again refused and as a result no markets were held in Bellingen for some time.
Around 1979 the President and Secretary of the Bellingen Neighbourhood Centre, Mary Anderson and Roma Mulder got together with local resident Chris Elford and organised a second market at the Bellingen Showground as a fundraising venture for the centre. Owing to lack of support and further complications the market again vanished into obscurity.
In December 1980 the market was on the way again and operating on the 3rd Saturday of each month from 12 noon onwards at the northern end of Church Street. At this stage of the market’s growth, the running, operating and management of the market had been transferred from the Community Centre to the newly formed Bellingen Shire Association. In the ensuing years, the market location was moved several times and it was not until early 1984 the market moved to Church St, on the western side of Bellingen Park.
With an initial slow settling in period during this time the markets soon found its roots and flourished during the 1985 Azalea Affair (remember that?) with an unprecedented 70 stalls in attendance. By 1987 the word had spread on the grapevine to surrounding areas, that a new country market was on the circuit, in a setting second to none on the north coast.
Realising the growth, potential and benefits that could be generated and gained from having a larger market in town, as part of the growing east coast circuit, the market organisers submitted an application to local council and the football club for the use of the eastern side of Bellingen Park to cope with the growing demand for stall sites. Permission was granted in 1989 to expand the market onto the eastern side of Bellingen Park up to the perimeters of the oval.
One of the nicest comments I overheard in the late 1980s was an elderly Bellingen resident remarking to her friend ‘…. aren’t our markets just wonderful…..’ to me this signalled a true acceptance of the market, as locals saw the market as their own. The rest as they say is history…..
Why do you think the markets are such a success story?
Attracting stalls and visitors from across Australia to its picturesque surrounds in Bellingen Park, the market offers visitors and locals alike a cross cultural view of our community. Lively entertainment, buskers, bargains, great food from across the globe and a wide diversity of stalls make it one of the most popular regional markets in Australia – “not just a market place but a great place to be”.
There have been many hundreds of people from all walks of life in the shire that have contributed to the success of the market. The committee and market team have worked hard over the years to provide a platform for the community to come together as one, regardless of beliefs or political persuasion.
I think what makes the market truly unique is the total community involvement in the event from sporting groups, emergency services, health, schools, community organisations and not-for-profit groups.
How important do you think these markets are to the fabric of the town?
I believe it is vitally important to the local shire community as it draws people together in the true sense of the word Community.
In a relatively small rural town it is important for locals to come together on a regular basis to catchup with old friends rarely seen due to distance or isolation. It also provides outlets for small retailers, established businesses or startups testing their products whether it be for crafts or food.
How important are the markets to the local economy?
It is hard to gauge the real financial impact on the local economy – but on the surface there are 200 to 250 stall-holders each month that rely on income from their stalls. There is also the flow on effect to businesses in town and surrounding areas with in excess of 5000 people visiting or passing through on the day.
The BSRA and BCM contribute to local employment with a manager employed for 72 hours per month and 14 staff on the day.
Community groups also fund-raise on the day as part of our community group program and can make some good money through donations.
In the last 40 years close to 200k has been donated back into the local shire community – this is the essence of the market to donate proceeds from each event back into the Bellingen Shire Community (from the mountains to the sea) via groups or infrastructure works in the park.
Do you see the markets continuing to go from strength to strength into the future?
I would like to think that the markets will continue from strength to strength in the coming years. There is always the risk of being ‘predictable’ and hence boring, which would see popularity and attendances dwindle. The committee and management team of the market again have worked hard over the years to provide a sustainable event. This was evident the onset of the CoVid19 pandemic, where we were able to ride out the storm and close our doors for 6 markets of this year.
Everyone’s safety and peace of mind is vital, so the market continues with Covid safety measures to ensure sanitizing, distancing and less congestion. Please support this and follow signage around park. A QR code to register your attendance can be downloaded from the webpage.
The 40th anniversary Bellingen Community Market has an unrivalled line-up of entertainment and activities planned.
Bello Kombi Tours will be helping to alleviate parking congestion by giving prople lifts for $2 to and from the market to areas in town and the swimming pool parking.
Happy Booth Photography will be taking professional photos of visitors for a 40th Bello Markets keepsake. For a donation (which will be donated to a charity) visitors can get a quality photo within 5 minutes and a high res file that can be downloaded after the market.
For more information go to https://www.bellingenmarkets.com.au/whats-on/
A message from John:
I would like to thank all members of our community that have contributed to the success of the markets over the years with too many to mention. We are compiling a list of all that have been involved over the years in the market and association. If you have any historic information please email to:
I would also like to thank the BCM manager Kaz Selbie and the market team who have done a great job during the ever changing environment. A special mention also must be made to the current committee of the association Megan Simpson, Mark Pye, Robert Brunnekreef, Helen Richmond and Karen Lovell who have ensured the sustainability and solid future of the association and event.
Proceeds from the monthly community market (after costs) are donated back into the local community via charities, community groups, schools and not for profit organisations. More than one hundred thousand dollars has been donated over the last 35 years. Some of the groups over the years include: SES, Radio 2bbb-fm, Bellingen Life Education Centre, public schools from Bellingen, Dorrigo and Urunga, Bellingen Hospital and Auxiliary, Bellingen Youth and Gymnastic Club, W.I.R.E.S, Bellingen Football Club, Bellingen Lions Club, Dorrigo Community Herb Garden, Dorrigo Wastebusters, Bellingen Adult Education Centre, Bellingen Neighbourhood Centre, Bellingen Azalea Affair, Dorrigo Dramatic Club, Sunset Therapy Unit, Bellorana Nursing Home, Dorrigo Community Day Care, Bellingen Environment Centre, Dawnsong Preschool, Bellingen Skillshare, Toxin Action Group (TAG) , Kids Off The Streets (KOTS), Bellingen Vacation Care, Bellingen Cubs and Scouts, Fernmount Fire Brigade, Urunga Play Centre, Bellingen Adults Day Care, Bellingen Folk club, Bellingen Jazz Festival, Bellingen Time Away Service, Bellingen Chamber of Commerce, Bellingen Red Cross, Dorrigo Hospital Auxiliary, Urunga Surf Club, Bellingen Pool, Children’s Special Support Group, North Beach Surf Club, Bellingen Music Festival, Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival to name but a few..