WHEN it comes to faces of Tamworth, often the first face visitors see is the one that welcomes them to their temporary digs.
And after having bought the somewhat notorious Rex Guesthouse almost five years ago, Jody Ekert has welcomed her fair share of the city’s guests.
The fun and relaxed venue – with matching owner – welcomes mostly students, new immigrants and refugees, backpackers, sporting families and contract workers.
The story of how Ms Ekert found and revived the place is the definition of guts and gung ho.
She’d been living in Sydney for 15 years, leasing boarding houses, before seeing the Rex for sale on Gumtree.
“[The owner] told me stuff on the phone that sounded too good to be true, so I got in the car and drove here straight away,” she says.
“I was like, ‘There has to be a catch’ – and there was a catch.
“Some people will say it was the worst place in Tamworth … but they always say buy the worst house in the best street.
“White Street, East Tamworth – the location was great, but the house was totally in disrepair.”
Ms Ekert said most of the rooms were “trashed”.
“I walked around Tamworth saying, ‘Tell me about the Rex’ … People were saying, ‘As kids we were told to cross the road rather than walk past the front’.”
Straight into work
But she saw huge potential and, after buying the place, “people kept ringing the doorbell”.
And Ms Ekert was “on such a budget, I couldn’t afford to have it empty”.
“At first it was super-cheap, $100 a week … and I’d say, ‘We’ve just moved in, here’s a bowl of keys – you have to build your own room .. drag a bar fridge from here, a mattress from there, clear out rubbish and then you can have that room,” she says.
“I think we had four or five people within a couple of days, all cleaning rooms.
“Then I got a truckload of furniture from IKEA and said, ‘Well, now it’s $120 a week … and here’s an Allen key’.
“It was great, people loved it.”
After almost five years’ work, Ms Ekert says she’s “sort of reached what we can do cosmetically”.
She and her son Elliott, 8, now live in a couple of rooms of The Rex, and have another 30 rooms available, plus shared bathrooms, living room and kitchen, for guests.
She said it had been important to her to give the former unofficial halfway house a “fresh start, fresh reputation”, which has included carefully screening her bookings.
“The money is for my son and I to eat. I want to help as many people as I can and keep it as cheap as I can, but it has to be safe.”
Safe, yes – conventional, no.
Elliott helps out at the reception desk and on the phones, and spends time with guests.
And although he and his mum have travelled widely together, Ms Ekert says running a place like The Rex is as close to travelling as it gets without leaving home.
She says some of their more memorable guests have been some Rohingya refugees.
“You’re teaching them basics – you’re teaching them how we make beds, how to use locks on doors, how to refrigerate your food.”
Ms Ekert also fosters cats and kittens for Heaven Can Wait, and allows people’s pets in The Rex, by approval.
She counts dogs, a guinea pig, cockatiels and even Bubba the pet chook among her non-human guests.
What kind of a person do you have to be to run a place like The Rex?
“It’s kind of like you never leave a uni dorm or sharehouse, really,” Ms Ekert says.
“You have to be able to be yourself while sharing your life in front of everyone, which is hard sometimes, especially with a kid.
“And you have to be a bit outside the box, really, because almost everyone I know says, ‘I wouldn’t do it; I couldn’t do it’.
“It’s a lifestyle job: most of the time I don’t feel like I’m working – but then I never, ever feel like I’m ‘off’.
“[On a recent trip to Singapore], people were still messaging me … ‘The internet’s being slow’. ‘We’re having a dispute over the washing machine’.”
Ms Ekert said she chose Tamworth because Elliott had been about to start school, Sydney was getting too expensive and they were “looking for a place to have a future”.
Does she feel she’s made the right decision?
“Oh yeah, for sure – absolutely no regrets,” she says.
“I would never go back to Sydney, and I try to convince everybody I know to leave Sydney.
“Tamworth’s been awesome for my son; we love it.”