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From No to Go – Finding a home for Cockington Green

The Cockington Green story is bound together by an eclectic group of people, many unknown to each other. This eclectic group of people are from different professions and backgrounds, many with unrelated skills sets but all critical to the fabric of Cockington Green.

To tell the attraction’s story after 40 years of operation, voices from the past and the present are best placed to bring the colour and realities together. One of the best starting points in the telling of the Cockington Green story is also one of the most colourful voices of the past.

Gordon Duff, or GD as he is referred to by all and sundry, is undoubtedly one of the greatest of friends of the Cockington Green family. Old school, earthy, matter-of-fact and entertaining in spades is a good starting point to describe GD. His background was in the legal profession and he knew his way around the property transaction world of Canberra’s unique leasehold system.

Gordon was enlisted by Doug and Brenda Sarah to help them acquire the parcel of land on which to create their dream. A man of great wit and humour, Gordon needed truck loads of that wit and humour as he sidled up to Doug and Brenda in their quest to bring their dream to reality. Between Doug and Gordon, they probably lost count of the times someone said no to them in the early days. And when they weren’t losing count, they were often losing patience.

Gordon explained, “The ambition was to construct a model village as a tourist attraction. He (Doug) asked me about acquiring a lease and he knew from buying their house that it was a leasehold system and not freehold in Canberra and so we discussed that. I quickly established that Doug was and still is a very enthusiastic, single-minded person filled with determination.

“I think I pointed him in the direction of the old leasing section in the North Building. I think I gave him a fellow’s name, that being Wal Southwell. But Wal wasn’t the bloke at the end of the day. In fact, I rang Wally Southwell and Wally put me onto a bloke, but I believe that Doug started the ball rolling himself. I had no input into that opening negotiation whatsoever,” added Gordon.

Gordon recalled, “Back then it (Canberra) was under the Federal Government, we had a Minister for the Interior and they had their own set of rules. But Doug pursued the lease and after a time we got a draft lease and Doug had discussions with the Department about precisely what he wanted in the lease and they initially were very cooperative because they saw it as a plus for Canberra.”

“I can remember that Doug got fairly agitated about the Department wanting to know exactly what he wanted to put on the site. He patiently told them that he didn’t really know until they gave him a site,” recounted Gordon.

In terms of pre-requisites and conditions for a site, location was major factor. Near a highway with good access was one requirement. It had to be the Federal Highway or the Barton Highway, not the Monaro Highway and another requirement was for a flat piece of land. The nature of the proposed display including landscaped gardens meant that ready access to water was critical, and which was a sticking point.

Gordon believed that Doug was satisfied in the end with the site which turned out to be five acres although he recalls that Doug did ask for more. One of the associated difficulties once obtaining the site was putting a value of the property. There was nothing to compare the proposed venture with for valuers seeking to quantify the commercial value.

Gordon remembered with amazement the energy of Doug and Brenda in negotiating the securing of a site on which to build their attraction. On top of the negotiations, there were children to look after, experimenting and building prototype models, making plans for the business and working in various jobs to pay the bills.

As the memories continued to resurface, Gordon remembered that at one stage he went to meet with the Minister because Doug had become fed up with the delays. Gordon attributed many of the delays to personnel changes inside the bureaucracy.

“One day you would be dealing with this person, the next day it would be someone else. Every day for the Sarah’s was a lost day. Every day that passed with nothing happening was deemed to be to them, lost. They wanted to get in, build the house and build the village,” recalls Gordon with a hint of residual frustration.

Having lived and breathed the negotiations, the frustrations and finally the jubilation of securing the lease, Gordon never doubted the resolve of Doug and Brenda to get to where they wanted to go. He had already alluded to Doug’s determination and single-minded attitude and with a goal in mind Gordon was left in no doubt about the outcome.

“Never, ever did I ever doubt the fact that they would build this complex and that it would be the best! You could tell, you only had to talk to the bloke for half an hour about this project and you knew that if he got it up and running it would be the best. It would be everything he wanted, I’ve no doubt whatsoever,” said Gordon enthusiastically.

“Doug was patient, but I bet he wouldn’t like to go through it again. They were both very patient and Doug was very determined as I said before. He’s a very determined man and he knew what he wanted and what he wanted to achieve. It’s a simple as that,” Gordon reiterated with great emphasis.

“Once we knew they were going to give us a lease, as Doug said on more than once occasion, that’s the biggest obstacle overcome now. I said to him, well it is, but let’s wait until they give us the lease itself. Of course, once we had the lease, that just confirmed that this was going to go ahead,” smiled Gordon as he re-celebrated the relief of a successful negotiation.

That successful negotiation took over a year longer than Gordon had envisaged. His original thoughts were of a process that would deliver a lease in about six months. This eked out to more than 24 months. In considering how long the process would take 45 years later, Gordon just chuckled and shook his head and then wondered if you would be able to make it happen today.

Gordon’s involvement didn’t stop once Doug and Brenda had obtained the lease. A few years after opening, Doug and Brenda were stopped in their tracks when they were presented an astronomical increase in land rent for their site. This review resulted in a rental increase in excess of 1,000 percent.

The shock of the land rent increases was the catalyst for the Sarah’s in pursuing a longer-term lease that would bring far greater certainty. It was clear that a review laced with the prospect of crazy increases every few years was a totally unsustainable proposition for any business.

It’s been a long journey for GD. He has seen and been through a lot as he has provided valuable support to Doug and Brenda Sarah in their quest to build a world-class attraction. There has been a fair share of frustration, hundreds of meetings, countless roadblocks, moments of disbelief, days, weeks and months of waiting, plenty of entertainment and an occasional laugh in between moments of gritted teeth.

Never doubting the project would happen, the elation of securing the lease still excites Gordon today. This had been almost three years of blood sweat and tears. The day the Crown Lease arrived at Gordon’s office in duplicate, and Doug and Brenda came in and signed it and stamped it with their Common Seal, meant it was all “go, go, go.”

“I saw the site, Doug won’t remember this, but he brought me out and it was just flat with some trees. There was a dirt road. There was nothing else there, oh, and the old cricket ground at the end of the dirt road,” recalled Gordon.

Despite to difficulties, Gordon said he still found lots to laugh about even though he couldn’t finger any one thing in particular. He said both Brenda and Doug had a great sense of humour and fondly recalls there was plenty to laugh about.

“We might have lost a few battles, but we still won the war,” Gordon retorts with much pride. “Looking at the attraction today, it still amazes me. I would on work days, get in my car and drive from my office in the city in my lunch hour out to Cockington Green, park the car and walk around the gardens, get back in car and drive back to the office. That was the great calming effect it had on me. I could go back and face the afternoon’s problems”, Gordon recalled with genuine melancholy.

He described Doug and Brenda as remarkable people, incredibly genuine, very caring and very thoughtful. GD recalled with both joy and sadness everything that Brenda did for his late father-in-law and noting that Doug was also there lending a hand.

“I don’t use this term a lot myself, but Doug and Brenda are the salt of the earth. They’re the sort of people this country was founded on and they’re the sort of people the country would bloody like to see more of. They would rather go out of their way to do a good turn than not do anything. That’s the sort of people they are,” reflected Gordon on his close friendship with Doug and Brenda.

So at the end of a lot of “no’s”, Canberra and Australia was the big winner when GD was alongside Doug and Brenda when the decision-makers finally said “go”.