The City of Wollongong prides itself on its commitment to social and economic diversity. First occupied by Europeans around 1815 – and now home to a population of about 207,000 – the city still ensures that its pre-existing Aboriginal presence is also recognised, and still celebrated in a variety of different ways. “Some of those Aboriginal heritage values are upheld and protected by various sites,” says Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbury. “More specifically, what we call Sandon Point – one of the best surfing breaks in the country, but also one of the most pristine in terms of respecting Aboriginal heritage.”
Just this past year, both backgrounds came together through Illawarra 200 – a bicentennial event that Bradbury deems very important to the city’s history. “That’s when Wollongong came into existence as a settled area, and then it acquired the name Wollongong over time.”
Around 1927, the city gained a reputation in the steel and fuel industry, as the Australian Iron and Steel Company built manufacturing facilities in Port Kembla. From there, the steel industry grew, and was a “major player” for the city’s economy – especially during World War II, through an inevitable increase in arms and war efforts.
Following the war, The City of Greater Wollongong was established through “the amalgamation of four councils around the small city.” The steel industry continued to grow within the region until 1985, when the number of employees were downsized from 25,000 to 12,000; these numbers have shrunk even more since then, causing the once-booming industry to take a back seat within a rather diverse economy.
Currently, there is a wide variety of industry sectors operating within the city; its “major players,” according to Bradbury are “engineering fabrication, logistics, tourism, age care, community services, medical, [and] ICT,” with the investment in health and age care as an ever-growing force. Illawarra Retirement Trust and Warrigal Care are the two main organisations for age care, while Greenacres Disability Services and The Flagstaff Group provide disability assistance for the surrounding area.
In addition to the local organisations, The University of Wollongong also provides its assistance to the city’s public health circuit, linking its Graduate School of Medicine to its premier hospital facilities. “The state governor has just put the Wollongong public hospital through a million-dollar re-fit, as well as the private hospital development. We also have the South Coast Private Hospital, which is concentrating on anxiety disorders for people who have to live in and deal with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, especially those who have been involved in military and emergency services operations. So, they’re specialising in that area – again, collaborating with the University of Wollongong, not only in medical services, but also in psychological therapies. So, that has been a major development.”
Tourism is another rapidly increasing industry within Wollongong; its proximity to the Sydney Airport has certainly helped in regards to their travel turnout. Access to Port Kembla has also allowed many cruise liners to visit the city, take advantage of day tours – and provide support to local businesses. “People often make the day trip down to Wollongong from Sydney as they do from Sydney to the Blue Mountains. So, they come to Wollongong in packaged tours – organised tours – and they come down the coast road, especially the Seacliff Bridge, from Stanwell Park or Coalcliff to the northern suburbs.”
Pathways like The Blue Mile along the coast or the Grand Pacific Pathway are great places for tourists to see the best of what Wollongong has to offer. Cycling has also become a main part of the city’s tourist sector. Not only is Mount Keira available to adventure tourists, but Wollongong is also one of the major house cities for The Sydney to the Gong Ride for MS; the event sees thousands of interested guests, which allows for the outside marketing of more riding weekends “to professional and elite athletes.”
“We also have one of the largest Australia Day celebrations in the country down here as well,” says Bradbury. “So, we engage in a lot of those already recognised memorial and commemorative days, and we do a lot in that space.”
Sustainability is important in any city, but Wollongong’s industrial diversity has proved a great strategy in maintaining its economic state. Using Bluescope as an example, Bradbury explains the importance of sustainable and diverse opportunities in preventing boom-bust economic cycles. The downturn threats to the steel industry forced the company to restructure, resulting in the loss of 500 workers from the city’s steelworks. While unfortunate, the city was able to “absorb” those workers, finding them other opportunities within Wollongong’s collective industries.
“It’s very important for us to operate on a sustainable and varied level of our local economy, instead of focusing on one business and one set of opportunities,” says Bradbury. “Also to emphasise that we want businesses that aren’t based on just aspirations, but have sound business and marketing principles endeavouring to meet the ongoing needs of the Australian community – and also the international markets, because we also need to be sustainable in the sense of being innovative. We’ve got to take up and intensify the use of our skill sets, making sure that they also are diverse in the way that they structure their operations.
The whole environment can change quickly – alter dramatically overnight – and businesses that aren’t nimble are likely to go under, and I don’t want my city to be focused upon just a narrow set of environmentally dependent businesses and operating practices. They have to be quick to respond to the market, the expectations, the changing economic climate – and I think that’s been half of our problem in the past.”
Despite great reception in relation to its active industries, there are some lingering issues that accompany the development of local reception. Around 20,000 citizens commute to Sydney from Wollongong daily, and these numbers may be greatly affected by the onset of urban expansion. “We now have the spill over of the land values and housing costs of Sydney, and that’s also confronting our city. People are looking to our local government area to find housing. So, putting in the infrastructure for what we expect to be a population increase of around about 50,000 by 2040 or 2050 is going to be one of our major challenges.
Also, with the expansion into the southwestern regions of Sydney – Campbelltown, Camden, and Waterloo, which are to our west – Wollongong’s going to be a coastal playground for those who want the coastal beach experience. So, they’re going to be travelling down to Wollongong as they already are, and putting pressure on our tourism infrastructure, our beach facilities and all those sorts of things which the coastal cities are expected to deliver to those who make the day trip down here from those suburbs.”
However, Bradbury is able to see a positive outcome in the added pressure of increased tourist appeal and expansion of Sydney’s suburbs. “The people who already live in Wollongong, their land values will increase because of the expectations of people who want to live on the coast. So, there are some interesting dynamics there now that are going to exert pressure on our city.”
Bradbury first came to Wollongong around 1978, when he started a degree in Social Sciences, Psychology and Sociology. Following graduation in 1982, he pursued a degree in Divinity at Sydney University. Upon completion of the graduate program, he was ordained into the United Church Ministry, where he remained until his election as Lord Mayor in 2011.
“I’ve concentrated on this role for the last four and a half years, and this is a full-time role as Lord Mayor of Wollongong,” he says. “But, my personal aspirations are very much connected with this city; to see its social capital increase the well-being of people. I think those things spill over into the first standards of infrastructure, the success of the local economy, the feel of the security of the community – all those things are heightened and increased when you have people who have access to resources, are better educated, more engaged, and people feel that they’ve got hope. So, those sorts of things dominate my perspective on the city.”
Bradbury is persistent in emphasising the “great cultural heritage” within Wollongong; its multicultural background and presence as an industrial hub since the second World War have allowed it to be very diverse in nature. The community speaks from a range of 19 languages and practices Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism; in fact, Wollongong is home to one of the largest Buddhist temples in the Southern Hemisphere.
“There’s quite a range of languages and cultural traditions represented in our city,” he says “We have a very active arts and cultural community, and some very great names in the performing arts have come from Wollongong” – among them are musicians Richard Tognetti and Cyrus Villanueva, a recent X-Factor Champion.
Ultimately, Bradbury would like Wollongong to be recognised for its “great cultural diversity, as well as [its] contribution to the country.”
“It’s a very multicultural city. We also have to engage with our communities in a way that means they are drawn into education and training opportunities so that we have a common set of standards by which designation and employment opportunities are given to all sections of our community, even those newcomers – such as refugees from Syria, which we’re expecting very soon. But, also charities. Engaging with charities and building those relationships can deliver things that council can’t.
The council should be more in a coordinating role, not necessarily a doing role; that is, to make sure that we identify the gaps and encourage organisations to meet those needs. Not necessarily council directly, but facilitating other engagements so that those needs are met.”