Wollongong woos investors

12 Dec 2023
Words John Miller Informer 110

Wollongong woos investors

The reinvention of New South Wales’ third largest city is one of the great urban renewal stories of the last decade. Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery spoke to Informer about how his council managed it.

Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery
Wollongong Lord Mayor, Gordon Bradbery

The Gong is having a moment. In its official marketing, Wollongong spruiks itself as a “city of innovation”. Slick sloganeering, surely. But money doesn’t lie. Billions of investment dollars are pouring into Wollongong at a rate of knots. Cranes dot the skyline, new hotels are popping up, and bars and restaurants are abuzz into the wee small hours. Last year, the NSW Top Tourism Town Awards recognised Wollongong’s leisure appeal with a top three place.

“We’ve been in Sydney’s shadow for so long, people are discovering something quite incredible has happened right under their nose,” says Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery.

Bradbery, 72, has overseen Wollongong’s renaissance as mayor for the last 12 years. Wollongong City Council under his leadership has been vigorously pro-business and forward thinking, working to a 10-year masterplan, Economic Development Strategy 2019–2029. Invest Wollongong, a collaboration between council, the state government and University of Wollongong, has attracted unprecedented levels of investment. 

“We’ve got ourselves into a position where we can pick and choose our investment opportunities,” says Bradbery. “Whereas we were once more vulnerable to just accepting any offers that came our way that looked like investment opportunities, we can now be a bit more selective in the way we apply the attention and kudos we’ve developed out of our economic development strategy.” 

Wollongong’s CBD alone has attracted $1.9 billion worth of projects over the last decade. During that time, the number of bars and cafes has doubled to almost 200. The CBD has recently seen a 75 per cent uplift in A-grade office space as Wollongong positions itself as a cheaper alternative to Sydney, which has long cast its shadow some 90 kilometres south.

The positioning is working. The city’s population is now almost 220,000 including over 10,000 Sydneysiders who, since the last census, have left the state capital for Wollongong’s coastal charm, lower cost of living and better traffic. On the work-life balance front, Wollongong has a happy labour force with staff turnover at half the national average. The city has also become a darling for start-ups, particularly tech companies, so much so that it has earned the cute moniker “Siligong Valley.”

Wollongong’s reinvention has been 12 years in the making and is still a work in progress says Bradbery. The city was in a funk when he was voted mayor in September 2011 in the first elections since council was put into administration by the NSW Government in 2008 following an ICAC enquiry that found widespread corruption.

“The city had a reputation, and not one to be proud of,” says Bradbery. “It was pretty down in terms of the council it had up until 2008 when it was dismissed. It reinforced the sense that we’d been in the malaise.”

Wollongong’s decline has its roots in the collapse of its coal mining and steelmaking industries decades earlier. Between them, these two industries had been the city’s mainstays for the better part of the 20th century before a massive downturn in the mid-1980s. The bust precipitated two lost decades for the city. When Newcastle’s steelworks closed in the late 1990s, there was talk Wollongong’s Port Kembla would go the same way.

“Wollongong went into sort of a hibernation,” says Bradbery. “The city was really just marking time.” 

Today, Port Kembla is on the rebound. Construction on Port Kembla Energy Terminal is 70 per cent complete. When it comes online in 2026, the terminal will meet more than 75 per cent of New South Wales’ gas needs, as well as attract gas-intensive advanced manufacturing to Wollongong. 

Another huge energy project is Hydrogen Headstart. In delivering the 2023-24 Federal Budget, Treasurer Jim Chalmers singled out Wollongong as central to this initiative that will see the Commonwealth invest $2 billion to support large-scale renewable hydrogen production such as the BOC Gas project in Wollongong’s southern suburb of Cringila.

Energy is just part of Wollongong’s new economic mix. Under Bradbery’s stewardship, council is determined to widen Wollongong’s economy across a diverse range of industries including health, tech, education, sport, culture, aged care, retail, tourism and hospitality.

“Being so dependent on coal and steel meant we were extremely vulnerable to cyclical fluctuations. That’s why there was such a positive attitude in council back then towards reinvention, looking at ways we could diversify our economy to future proof it against cyclical downturns,” says Bradbery, who was elected as an independent, unaligned — and unimpeded — by party affiliation. 

In setting Wollongong’s direction, Bradbery says council didn’t look to other cities, neither here nor abroad, for a template of urban reinvention.

“That’s not to say we’re not open to learnings from other locations, but at the same time the city had spent so much time comparing ourselves to others that it was almost paralysed with comparisons,” he says. “That was the problem in as much as everyone was telling us what everyone else was doing and how successful they were and that we were weren’t up to the benchmarks that had been set by other cities.”

“So, we more or less just decided, let’s utilise the talents and visions within, and just stick to our own sense of self-worth and direction, instead of trying to be all things to everyone. Let’s do what we can well. We just asked, What are our unique features? What are our skill sets? Then a basic SWOT analysis and we just got on with it.”

Bradbery says pulling everyone together on the same page was the initial challenge, bringing onboard business organisations like Illawarra First, Business Illawarra, Regional Development Australia and i3net.

“What we created were critical masses of common interests that then plugged into implementing our economic, social and environmental vision for the city,” he says.

Another successful council initiative was the Wollongong CBD Night Time Economy Policy, in force since 2020. The policy has turned Wollongong into a genuine night-time destination by extending operating hours to 2am for bars and other businesses. Over 35 approvals for new and expanding businesses in the CBD have been granted, including restaurants, bars, theatres and gyms. 

Most of all, Bradbery says unlocking Wollongong’s natural features by way of infrastructure that allows locals and visitors to enjoy them has played a significant part in the coastal city’s revival.

“What we realised was the city’s natural beauty, sandwiched between our iconic escarpment and the ocean,” says Bradbery. “So, we built the Grand Pacific Walk, a 50 km shared bike and pedestrian path that stretches from Helensburgh in the north down to Windang in the south and takes in Wollongong’s 17 beaches and nine ocean pools.”

“It’s those natural features people are discovering, simply because in the past Wollongong was often bypassed. It wasn’t a significant stopover when you were heading south from Sydney, you’d just keep going. We’re not saying Wollongong is perfect, but we’ve given people plenty of reasons to come here now.” END

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