On March 22, Grampians Community Health's new workforce strategy came into effect.
The strategy included planning around how to ensure sufficient accommodation for its workers, and how to make Stawell an attractive place to live to big city residents.
That same day, the Prime Minister announced much of the country would go into lockdown.
Out of necessity, GCH changed the strategy. As a result, it changed its fortunes in retaining skilled staff.
"Part of our recruitment strategy going forward is being able to attract people outside of the region to work from home, while they find housing close by," said chief executive Greg Little.
"We obviously want people on-site where we can to connect to our organisation and do face-to-face client work, but the lessons we've learned out of COVID have helped us greatly."
In the months before the pandemic, Mr Little said the organisation had lost several staff who had been hired. He said they couldn't find accommodation in Stawell, and subsequently found jobs elsewhere.
"In the last three months our recruitment has been less than normal, but we have put on three or four staff during lockdown," he said.
"What we see now is there are greater opportunities for us to have a blended service which will help in attracting people."
Mr Little said GCH conducted counselling and case management over video and phone calls, and had found this arrangement suited some rural residents better than travelling to the organisation's facilities.
"The lessons from this have driven innovation," he said. "We're now doing an addendum to the strategy which says 'How does what we've learned attract and retain high-quality professional staff?'"
Mr Little said new arrivals to the region had started to look at smaller townships like Pomonal, Moyston and Halls Gap.
"They can still work in the townships, but (finding) property is easier," he said. "The biggest problem is poor telephone and internet connectivity. We're working with the (Northern Grampians Shire) council on advocating for stronger internet for those smaller towns as well."
Ararat Ballarat Real Estate sales manager Brad Jensen said the COVID-19 pandemic had had little impact on Stawell and Ararat's housing market, with rental vacancy rates low and median rents higher.
"The pandemic has not had a lot of impact: In towns like Glenpatrick and Elmhurst... we've had families looking to buy holiday homes and also retire into those areas because of the pandemic, but that's a small minority," he said.
The data does not mention if the Wimmera is part of this trend, though it shows in the five years to 2016, 35 people moved from Warrnambool to Horsham, while 126 people left Horsham, Stawell and Ararat for the southern city.
Census data shows Ararat's population grew by 221 over the same period.
Mr Jensen said rather than millennials, retirees were the main group moving to Ararat.
"The majority are retiring and utilising the lifestyle in Ararat, because we have a lot of industry doctors and good access to Melbourne with the trains," he said.
Data provided to the Mail-Times by property analysis firm CoreLogic shows Ararat's median house price has been gradually increasing month on month in 2020, while unit prices are steady. Mr Jensen estimated a large proportion of buyers in the city - around 20 per cent - were out-of-towners investing for rental purposes.
"We're getting a lot of market younger couples - people in their 30s up to their 50s - investing in Ararat and Stawell because rental returns are so strong around seven per cent, again not impacted by the pandemic," he said.
"The reason why rent is so high in Ararat and Stawell is there is not enough housing: Developments need to be opened up and houses need to be built."
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