Bendigo’s social scene evolves with best-laid plans

Chris and Steve
Bendigo Campus Planning alumni and good mates Chris Kelly and Steve Abbott at Handle Bar.

Steve Abbott says he never intended to be a “passenger of the planning system”. Suffice to say he’s in the saddle. Riding the bike. Peddling free, going places. Excuse the puns, but we have met at the Handle Bar. It’s the space Steve envisaged with fellow planning alumnus Chris Kelly almost four years ago.

Today this trendy little outdoor bar at the back of a block of shops in Mitchell Street is a firm favourite on the Bendigo social scene. It’s apt it’ll be firing during O-Week, as the idea behind it was sparked at La Trobe.

“It was about the idea of legacy,” Steve says, whose day job is at the City of Greater Bendigo. “When you become a planner you become an assessor of development applications, whereas at uni you learn the theory all around how cities evolve and what makes great places, how cities culturally mature and offer different things to different people. We wanted to have a crack at achieving something and applying what we’d learnt.”

Steve and Chris met during their La Trobe years, although Steve was a year ahead. Both embraced the opportunities at the Bendigo Campus, taking part in Work Integrated Learning posts and overseas travel. It was while visiting cities in Europe, America and Asia they discovered similar creative spaces to Handle Bar with a laid-back, community feel they thought would be embraced in Bendigo.

“The great thing about this course is it promotes international opportunities. If you’re going to do planning you need to think globally,” Steve says. “We were able to see this blank space at the back of the shops and visualise what it could be.”

Right now the bar boasts crates of blushing tomato bushes, rustic recycled furniture, street art and a stage for live and local musicians and comedians.

Handle Bar is owned by a group of around 30 people and managed by a board of directors, which include the two alum. Chris says after being opened for three-and-a-half years, it’s found a place in the hearts of Bendigo punters.

“I still love coming in here and seeing people relax and enjoy themselves, and I love the surprised look on people’s face when they come through and see it for the first time,” Chris says. (The bar entrance is at the back of the Get Naked Espresso Bar.)

“Steve and I did a lot of the physical work ourselves, so to see the space actually create enjoyment is really satisfying.”

Handle Bar is one of a growing number of community-orientated projects Steve and Chris are involved with, such as the not-for-profit craft beer promotion group Bendigo Beer.

It’s fair to say they’ve both embraced the city, although Chris laughs he’d never heard of Bendigo before enrolling in the planning course as a mature-age student.

“I was living on the Gold Coast and I’d never heard of Bendigo in my life,” he says. “I’d moved to Melbourne hoping to do a course there but I didn’t get in.” That was a Bachelor of Environment at a Melbourne uni. The uni recommended Chris look at the Bendigo planning course as a pathway, do a semester, get good marks and transfer into his original course of choice.

“I planned to be here for six months and that was ten years ago. Things just continued to happen here.” Chris now works full time locally at Remplan and he and his partner have their own little local in their two-year-old son.

“I really enjoyed the course and after the first semester I went on an international study tour. I found the lecturers were really good and the classes were  not just sitting in large impersonal lecture theatres, they were really engaging, so I stayed.

“A lot has changed in the ten years since I came. The food and drink scene here is great, and the cultural side of things. It’s still a country town but it was a lot more country townish back then. Bendigo is a nice size, it’s small enough that you can have an impact and you can do something.”

In fact the pair have another ‘something’ up their sleeves. “I can’t say what, there’s a couple of firsts for Bendigo on the boil, but I can’t say right now,” Chris hints. “They’re both very interesting.”

Handle Bar Comedy promises a big night of laughs during O-Week on Thursday, February 28 from 8.30pm. Find the bar at the rear of 73 Mitchell Street, Bendigo.

Handle Bar 4_Visioning workshop
And after.

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