PLUNGED into darkness after a power outage, attendees of the CBH Wheatbelt Futures Forum were networking in the shadows last Wednesday.
The forum, held last week at the Muresk Institute in Northam, soldiered on - run by generators and mobile projectors - and showcased the resilience and collaboration of regional communities.
However it raised the question, will regional communities ever have reliable power?
Power was a large talking point during morning tea, with many attendees offering testimony of power outages at least once a day throughout regional WA.
The Northam-wide power outage was caused by a truck hitting a power pole, which Shire of Northam chief executive officer Jason Whiteaker said highlighted the fragility of the regional power system.
"That one power pole caused an outage right across our community, and from what we understand throughout the region - it just highlights the fragility," Mr Whiteaker said.
Member for the Central Wheatbelt Mia Davies, The Nationals WA, said the conference, while focusing on the future of the Wheatbelt and attracting businesses to the region, overlooked that basic livability amenities such as power was a "limiting factor" for attracting people to the regions.
"If a business comes to town, there may not be enough power for them to actually commence or to expand," Ms Davies said.
"On the one hand, the government says we want to create jobs, we want to invest, we want the private sector to come to the party - but the basic infrastructure is the limiter.
"It's expensive if you have to go through that process of upgrading or putting it in yourself, whereas in the Perth metropolitan area that is already there and you just hook in."
Mr Whiteaker said he didn't want the Wheatbelt to get to the stage where they needed to rely on generators for power, but he said he knew of many businesses which had generators as a backup out of necessity.
Ms Davies said businesses were affected on a regular basis by the unreliability of the power grid - with many edge-of-grid communities suffering because they were a small number of people on the end of a "very long, stringy" line.
"When power goes down, our communities are left stranded," Ms Davies said.
"A basic for any State government is making sure our region's can thrive, instead of just survive."
Ms Davies referred to a Wheatbelt business that received a $150,000 Regional Economic Development Grant to go towards expanding its business three years ago as the power grid wouldn't be able to handle the demand from the company's expansion.
She said it was great that the company was committed to the regions, but didn't think awarding Regional Economic Development Grants was the best way to tackle regional development.
"We need to reduce the cost of developing land, power and water connections - the government has announced a very small amount (of funding) that will be spread like Vegemite across the whole State, and it includes the metropolitan area," she said.
The Avon Industrial Park, a government initiative to increase business in the regions, only 15 minutes east of Northam, has sold a majority of its blocks to businesses - including a large parcel to CBH - however Mr Whiteaker said they were only getting 3G on the site.
"When you're trying to run a business and expand a business, and you're only getting 3G 110 kilometres from Perth, that's a limitation when you're trying to grow local economies," he said.
While the industrial park is regarded as a massive achievement, and was referred to multiple times throughout the forum for its success, Mr Whiteaker said it was easy for governments to "get lost" in job creation and housing targets.
He said in the past five years, there have been 100 new jobs created per year in Northam.
However, Northam's population growth wasn't at the same rate - and many people opted to commute from Perth.
"Unless you've got a really liveable community, people just aren't going to come, unfortunately," Mr Whiteaker said.
Most people were only receiving 3G at the Muresk Institute on the day of the conference, which both Ms Davies and Mr Whiteaker said was extremely frustrating - and left communities stranded.
"When travelling from Northam to Perth, the amount of times I've been on the phone and gone into a black spot - we're having black spots within 40km of our Perth CBD," Mr Whiteaker said.
"We can talk to someone on the moon, but we can't talk to someone 40km from our city, it's extremely frustrating.
"We're here talking about developing our economy and developing local businesses, and this certainly is just one of the challenges that regions face."
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