When COVID-19 started to impact WA in March 2020, Peta Wilson wondered how she and her business would cope.

Even before widespread restrictions were put in place, Wilson and her partner Anthony Jenkinson decided her auto immune disease meant six weeks in isolation was in order until the full ramifications of the pandemic became clear.

Business was a more complex and equally stressful proposition. Wilson had only moved back to Onslow in WA’s Pilbara in the past two years and her Kuarlu Gift Shop had been open less than 12 months.

“Our thoughts about the future were very confusing,” Wilson explained.

“We had a lot of time to discuss things and worry a great deal about the financial side having just bought stock and made ongoing orders for the gift shop.

“The shop is a complex of two buildings and I also do corporate accommodation in it.

“When we stopped work our corporate clients had to leave Onslow and my tenants in another two-bedroom house also left.”

In the longer term, WA’s ability to manage and control the coronavirus meant that the earliest and strictest COVID-19 rules – including regional travel bans that stopped domestic tourism – were only temporary.

But in the interim, Wilson and dozens of other business owners in town were indebted to an innovative collaboration between the Onslow Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Chevron, which operates the Wheatstone gas plant 12km west of the town.

In short, every adult Onslow resident was given $300 in vouchers (broken down into $50 denominations) to spend with local businesses. Although COVID has been a catalyst for a great deal of digital transformation across the globe, this program was distinctly ‘lo fi’ – out of necessity.

“We looked at all different ways to make it this big, fancy automated app and online program,” Onslow CCI Chief Executive Chantelle King said.

“Firstly, that was going to be expensive and secondly, it was going to take a long time to build something.

“So we went the old school manual voucher way.  We printed 3500 vouchers for every local resident to spend at 20 participating local businesses.

“There were two outcomes. It supported individuals who may have been struggling during COVID-19 and may have had their hours cut or completely lost their jobs.

“It also put the money back into local businesses, with a really good spread across those businesses.

“The vouchers are valid until April 2021 as well. It wasn’t meant to be a short-term thing and when we were doing this, at the end of March and early April [2020], we still didn’t really know what COVID looked like.”

Onslow businesses have not only survived COVID-19 but set themselves up for life beyond the pandemic.

By Christmas, $117,000 of $170,000 of vouchers, which were funded by the Chevron Onslow Relief Fund, had been claimed back by businesses.

The concept wasn’t quite as simple as it may appear on paper – there were restrictions on what types of products could be bought and limits to how much people could spend at any one business – but its success paved the way for OCCI and Chevron to roll out other initiatives they had designed to help ‘COVID-proof’ the town.

Next up an Upskill For The Future program, which offered grants up to $2500 to people who were underemployed (casual or part-time) or had lost their jobs in the previous six months, and undertook training with an accredited organisation.

The program was subsequently expanded to include anyone who had become unemployed at any time and has now delivered more than $40,000 of training to 22 Onslow residents, covering everything from management training, to accounting and electrical testing and tagging.

Of course it’s not only individuals who need to be prepared for the future – businesses also face that challenge.

As a result, the OCCI offered up an expanded version of its existing business support programs with the assistance of Fremantle-based Business Foundations.

More than 20 Onslow businesses benefited from a webinar that outlined in detail what government grants were available to them.

Another eight businesses also took up a further opportunity for two-hour, one-on-one advisory sessions with Business Foundations to assess the support they would need during and after the pandemic.

“We are part of the Onslow community, so helping maintain prosperity and social cohesion in Onslow during a health and economic crisis is more than just being neighbourly,” Wheatstone Production Manager Deanne Renting said.

While WA has coped better with COVID-19 than anyone could possibly have predicted last March, there is still a great deal of uncertainty around the pandemic. The current lockdown in Perth and surrounding regions is evidence of that.

But thanks in part to the assistance of the OCCI and Chevron, Wilson is planning for a bright future with her gift shop.

She is grateful for the flow of referrals she gets from local caravan parks and has a strong focus on selling West Australian products, including the Mount Romance range from Albany, Diamond & Dust candles from the Pilbara and Wheatbelt, and Soap Bush Soap produced in Newman.

“It [the OCCI-Chevron collaboration] has been such a tremendous support for Kuarlu and other businesses in town,” Wilson said.

“It’s even helped me to hire a friend who became unemployed due to the COVID-19 impacts in town.”