Mackay City Council amalgamated with the former Pioneer Shire Council in 1994. Then in 2008, the amalgamation of Mackay City Council, Sarina Shire Council and Mirani Shire Council formed Mackay Regional Council. Before diversifying and becoming a major service hub for the mining industry, Mackay relied heavily on the sugar industry. “We’ve also experienced growth in other types of agriculture, as well as all sectors, ranging from tourism to education,” said Mackay Regional Council Mayor Deirdre Comerford.
Transforming from a sleepy sugar town to a bustling regional city, Mackay has become one of the fastest growing regions in Queensland and Australia. “Our population has grown from just over 91,000 in 2001 to 112,798 at the last census in 2011,” Mayor Comerford proudly continues. Mackay now has an estimated population of more than 123,000 and by 2031 the population is forecast to top 180,000.
Like any growing city, Mackay is faced with challenges. With the current price of coal and world supply, the region’s economy is going through a period of adjustment. “It has allowed our region to take a breather and consolidate, but there is no doubt the adjustment has created some challenges for residents, especially in relation to work and businesses,” said Mayor Comerford. Mackay Regional Council is committed to assisting businesses and residents during this adjustment period. Council believes diversity is the key for the future. As Mayor Comerford states: “We’ve been the driving force behind a 12-member consortium named the Diversify Mackay Leadership Alliance (DMLA).
“The alliance brings together industry, small business, community and all levels of government to work on diversifying and building on our economy from mining services, sugar and other agriculture, tourism and education.” Mackay Regional Council acknowledges the opportunities agribusiness, gas, tourism, international education and wealth management present given the Asian Century approaching and its proximity.
Council is also working on a Mackay Regional Council Economic Development Strategy. AEC Group Pty Ltd has been engaged to help develop the five-year strategy, due to be completed by June 30, 2015
Council has a major focus on tourism, looking to attract more leisure tourists from Melbourne and Victoria, given there are direct flights. To get the ball rolling, a five-person delegation, led by the DMLA visited Melbourne in December. This delegation included council’s Manager of Economic Development Debra Howe and Tourism and Economic Development Portfolio Councillor Greg Martin. After the delegation returned, follow-up promotion ranged from marketing with Tigerair to television show Coxy’s Big Break visiting Mackay, resulting in a 10 per cent increase in passenger numbers on air routes between Melbourne and Mackay in three months.
Understanding that word of mouth is one of the best marketing tools, council launched a #mackaypride campaign late last year to celebrate the achievements, prosperity and natural beauty of the region. A three-minute #mackaypride video encourages residents to take pride and share the message via social media. Nestled between the coastline and rainforest, Mackay is well positioned for tourism. “We have a world-class marina, easy access to nearby islands and reefs and we’re home to some of the best fishing in Australia,” said Mayor Comerford.
Visitors are able to enjoy scuba diving with platypus or a rainforest zip-lining experience with Forest Flying at Finch Hatton. Tourists looking for an adrenaline rush have activities available such as wakeboarding at Go Wake Cable Park, kitesurfing or jet boating on the Pioneer River. Through the DMLA, a “101 Things to Do” in the Mackay Region Z card was created to highlight the long list of attractions.
Business tourism, such as conferences and events like the biennial Queensland Mining and Engineering Exhibition (QME), the largest regional business-to-business mining industry event in Australia, is also a growth industry.
The major infrastructure project being undertaken this year is an $18 million revitalisation of the City Centre to be completed in October. The project is jointly funded by the Australian Government and council. It includes upgrading underground drainage and services, new footpaths, new street lighting, street furniture, landscaping, public art, restoring the heritage-listed former Pioneer Shire Council building, planting of shade trees in the centre medians to reduce the temperature and a renewed focus in providing outdoor dining.
The project is the first major redevelopment of the City Centre since the early 1990s. Council has also introduced a Façade Improvement Scheme to provide funding for City Centre building owners to improve their facades. A new $37 million state-of-the art sewerage treatment plant at Sarina officially opened last year and a nearly completed new $14 million water treatment plant at Marian are some of the other major council infrastructure projects the city has seen.
MRC’s calendar of events is packed with a variety of options for residents and visitors which council either hosts or supports. Major events include New Year’s Eve celebrations, Australia Day, the Sports Expo and Sign-on Day and the Easter Lanes Carnival. Other scheduled events include the Greenmount Heritage Fair in May, the Mackay Marina Run in June, the 27th annual Mackay Festival of Arts in July, the Mackay Beach Horse Races in August, PBR bull riding in September and the Global Grooves Multicultural Festival in October. Council will continue to work on exciting year round events for everyone to enjoy.
Mayor Comerford shares her perspective on Mackay’s future, stating: “The success of local businesses is a key to the future prosperity of our region.” Council has introduced a range of initiatives to promote sustainable operating practices of local businesses and to attract new investment to the region. A recently revised “buy local” procurement policy provides up to a 10% benefit for local business and suppliers. “Changing that methodology allows greater scope in selecting a local business if they demonstrate comparative quality on goods, services and works compared to non-local tenders,” said Mayor Comerford. Council will be making a new announcement at budget time which will further assist local business.
Another policy Mackay has adopted includes facilitating development within the region. This policy offers incentives for developers of commercial, residential and industrial projects. This applies to projects costing more than $5 million in Paget, Marian, Mirani and Sarina, as well as the Mackay City Centre. To be eligible, projects must begin within two years of the economic incentives being approved by council.
Small-scale projects are also being assisted by council. “We’ll also consider concessions in infrastructure charges for small-scale, rural-based tourism uses and sports and recreation uses,” said Mayor Comerford.
Since 2013, council has held monthly Developer’s Forums with the Urban Development Institute of Australia (UDIA) as well as individual developers to ensure it is meeting the industry’s needs.
Being a modern community, Mackay is also very multicultural with up to 100 new Australian citizens sworn in at Citizenship Ceremonies hosted each month. In the last three years, these citizens have come from 65 different countries and now call Mackay home.
Council also has good partnerships with a range of charities in the region and Mayor Comerford is a board member of the Mackay Community Foundation and a trustee of the Macrossan and Amiet Charitable Foundation. Both are self-sustaining charities which have more than $1 million each in funds held in trust for the community.
The current major issue at the forefront of council’s discussion is relieving financial pressure on its residents. “That is the common theme in discussions as we work on formulating our budget for 2015/16,” said Mayor Comerford. The rapid development of the region in recent years has required massive investment in infrastructure, which put huge pressure on rates.
That pressure was heightened by the vast size of the council area, covering 7622 square kilometres, with a relatively small rating base of about 51,000 rateable properties.
Another budgeting success, was council’s ability to maintain and even lower some health and regulatory services fees for the 2015/16 financial year. Council is committed to finding savings and reducing operational costs by sticking to the common theme of working smarter. The Mackay Region Planning Scheme draft is currently with the State Government awaiting sign-off and includes a Priority Infrastructure Area (PIA). This PIA, will ensure new development is promoted in areas with, or close to existing infrastructure, to reduce pressure on council and, consequently its rate payers, to fund new infrastructure. The plan still envisages council directing community funding of nearly half-a-billion in new infrastructure in this development footprint in the next 10 years.
Mayor Comerford first stood for election in 1994 at age 30 and was then elected to Mackay City Council. Serving until 2004 she retired as the Deputy Mayor. She took this opportunity to adopt her two beautiful children from Taiwan. She then stood for re-election in 2008 and was elected to the newly amalgamated MRC in 2008. In 2012, Cr Comerford was elected as the region’s 53rd Mayor. She states: “I never imaged still being in local government 21 years on, but I enjoy the challenges it presents and I am passionate about my community. My objective for 2015 is supporting my community through the adjustment in our economy.”
We have no doubt that Mackay Regional Council has an extremely bright future and will become a nationally known treasure. Looking to lead by example, it truly showcases and offers the best aspects of Australia.