A combination of nostalgia and passion drove Armidale's new mayor to go where many would fear to tread.
Before the recent election, the last council had divided into two factions that could not work together and engaged in conflict. This led to concerns about its ability to function properly and effectively following the breakdown of relationships between councillors and key council officers.
By the time current general manager James Roncon arrived at the beginning of 2021, councillors had already been suspended for six months in 2020 following infighting, and some councillors had made several attempts to sack the previous general manager.
Then last week, he was elected mayor after delivering a nomination address that included an insightful summary of the strengths of each of his fellow councillors.
Mayor Coupland says the seed of his political aspiration was sown about 8 years ago.
"It was born of frustration," Cr Coupland said.
"I am an advocate for the rail trail, and I went to a meeting very early on, and I was just astounded by the negativity.
"I came back from that meeting and said to my wife Caroline, I think at some point I'm going to have to run for council because I'm just seeing good ideas get shut down by self-interest."
Sam Coupland was raised on a mixed farming property east of Tamworth, completed his schooling at TAS and earned his degree at UNE.
He worked for the international consulting firm Ernst & Young, then became the owner of a specialist advisory firm FMRC which works with businesses to improve profitability, identify growth opportunities and build employment.
After twenty years working in Sydney and abroad, he returned to Armidale with his family in 2012. He established a large scale cattle business in North Queensland in 2016.
"Caroline and I chose to raise our children in Armidale so they could enjoy a similar upbringing to our own experiences," he said.
"I was here as a school and uni kid, and seen through my young eyes; it seemed quite bustling. Then when we moved back here, it was anything but."
In 2021 the time was finally right for him to put his energy into politics, Cr Coupland said.
"I am the sort of person that if I do something, I'm all in," he emphasised.
"I don't do anything by halves. I never have, and I never will.
"When this election rolled around, I'd set up both my businesses so that I could build my life around my work. And it's probably an age and stage thing as well.
"I was just in a fortunate position where I did have the time to run for the council. To run a campaign, but also to put in the effort that's required if elected."
Cr Coupland says one of his talents is to harness the strengths of those around him, and his election campaign was an example of this. He is not wrong when he says, 'we probably stepped things up a bit'.
As well as the usual 'boots on the ground' meet and greets, there was a website, a well-produced video and social media campaign. All of which was meticulously thought through as part of a 15-week plan, according to Cr Coupland.
Not bad for a man who less than a year ago was caught by his 14-year-old daughter Googling 'how to post on Facebook'.
"Way back in August, I had just got back from mustering up north, and Millie walked into my office and looked over my shoulder and burst out laughing and said, 'that is such an old man thing to type'," Cr Coupland confessed.
"So I got in touch with a mate of mine, Ed Campbell, who had started up his own communication company called Seek and Deploy and said I needed him to help me with Facebook. He said to me, 'mate, I think we can do more than that'.
"Caroline and I nutted out a strategy with him. She has a wealth of political experience, and Ed is plugged-in to the zeitgeist of the community."
Caroline Coupland's political experience comes from being the daughter of political stalwart and independent MP Bob Katter.
She was also his chief of staff when he left the Nationals and through his first election as an independent 20 years ago.
"Caroline probably would have more hard, realistic campaigning experience than anyone in town, so I was pretty blessed to have her skill set, but she's not at all political," Cr Coupland said.
"And while I always receive advice from my father-in-law, there are not many 49-year-old men who do their father-in-law's bidding.
"Bob has absolutely no influence over what I say, do or think.
"I'm an issues guy.
"But what I would glean from Bob is his overwhelming commitment to his community - it is phenomenal - that is all he is interested in, and it really is genuine."
So what are the priority issues for Armidale's new mayor?: a functional council, economic growth, tourism and social prosperity.
"A lot of the things that we perceive to be problems in Armidale, or the area, are really symptoms; they're not causes," Cr Coupland said.
"The mall's dead, there is a lack of vibrancy, the commercial heart of the place seems to be bumping along, retail's bumping along, and the council's in a powerless financial state.
"Those things are symptoms of a low population."
The Armidale Regional Council's rateable base needs to grow significantly, and quickly Cr Coupland says.
"We need an extra 10,000 people in this region as quickly as we possibly can," he said.
"So the strategy then is everything that is needed to achieve this."
Jobs are critical, Cr Coupland said, and the council needs to cut unnecessary red tape and court government and big business to attract them to town.
"The APVMA is a terrific success story, and a couple more of those would be brilliant," he said.
"It would also be great if one of the big four banks decided to set up a portion of its back-office here in Armidale. So those are the sorts of things that I think we can do. But we need vibrancy to attract those people and young families."
"At the moment, we just point to the gorges and say, look if you head out of town 30 kilometres, you'll see some magnificent water tumbling over the edge," Cr Coupland said.
"That's not tourism; that's just lazy. But if the rail trail happens, put your money into Guyra and buy the Glencoe pub would be my tip."
According to Cr Coupland, renewable energy is the most significant opportunity for growth in the region. In terms of both job creation and income from start-up to decommissioning. He says he envisions for Armidale something akin to the Australian Future Fund, which the federal government set up in 2006.
"This has the potential to be our mining boom," he said.
"There is a real opportunity to get some dividends paid by the proponents in those energy projects. We as a council need to come up with a plan to extract that dividend and how best to use it.
"Done right there will be enough lollies for everyone.
"But we need to have sensible people around to extract that dividend and make sure we don't just pilfer it on trinkets and shiny things for self-gratification."
There is already a housing shortage though Cr Coupland concedes, and this will need to addressed before we can welcome thousands of new residents.
"There is frustration out there, and we need to have a sensible plan on land release and development applications so that we can help these people," he said.
"We need the developers to want to develop here. They are absolutely essential."
The new leader of Armidale Regional Council is not short of enthusiasm, experience, ideas and time to get things done, but it is a big job, so where does he intend to start?
And how does he plan to steer his council team and balance fiscal responsibility with the community's needs?
"The first thing I am going to do is satisfy myself that the financials are in order," Cr Coupland said.
"We've got a good financial footing, and that becomes our bedrock, and we will build from there. You've got to be able to help yourself first before you can help others.
"I would love to be able to give goodies to everyone, but I think that's going to have to come from government grants, so it will mean effective lobbying in the first instance."
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