The City of Wollongong was founded in 1947, gazetted as the City of Greater Wollongong, incorporating 5 local government areas. Since its establishment, the city had been dominated by its steel sector, which became the major focus of its economy until the decline of the Australian steel industry in the early 2000’s. Wollongong has since succeeded in adapting itself to the changing times, and has developed a diverse, resilient local economy, ranging from logistics and education to health and social assistance, as well as a large ICT sector.
With half a billion dollars invested in a new hospital, as well as a private hospital and a large number of aged care groups, including the Illawarra Retirement Trust, calling the city home, Wollongong is fast becoming known as a centre of excellence within the sector. The city’s close proximity to the Sydney Metropolitan Area has led to its discovery as lifestyle city, resulting in a significant amount of residential property investment. “Property values have escalated dramatically,” says Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, “and it has been found that Wollongong’s lifestyle and natural beauty has been reclaimed from its industrial past, and is now becoming a major feature of the city.”
Located only an hour and a quarter away from Sydney International Airport, Wollongong has positioned itself as an attractor for tourists entering the country. “Those who come to Sydney can also have the opportunity to come South and have a broader experience of Australia, more specifically through our regional city,” says the Lord Mayor. “As tourists go from Sydney to the Blue Mountains, they now also go from Sydney to Wollongong.” Surrounded by a variety of tourist locations, from 17 patrolled beaches along the coast, to the Southern Highlands behind it, Wollongong has become a circuit that tourists can undertake and enjoy.
Wollongong City Council has prioritised investment in its roads, public walkways, and cycle ways, including the Grand Pacific Drive, a 140 kilometre roadway that travels through the region, highlighting a variety of local attractions, such as the Belmore Basin Harbour, and the Blue Mile, 60 kilometres of cycle paths that stretch from North Wollongong Beach to City Beach. The city has also upgraded its retail areas, including a refurbished mall for a better customer experience. As well, a major shopping centre business, GPT, has recently completed a $250 million expansion of their facilities in the area. “The retail mix in this city is quite a unique approach;” says the Lord Mayor, “they didn’t go for the generic box style shopping centre. The new GPT building is connected to the city, and was recently awarded an international architectural award for its design, form and function. The idea is to expand that retail mix, adding approximately 30 bars, small café’s, and restaurants to the mix of the city’s CBD.”
The Council holds major events on New Years’ Eve and Australia Day around the city’s foreshore, an attractive locale capable of accommodating the large volumes of visitors from the suburbs of Sydney. It is also heavily involved in a number of festivals, most notably one of our signature events – Viva La Gong, a celebration of the city’s multicultural nature. “Viva La Gong is an opportunity for the multicultural groups that have come into this area over time to celebrate their diversity,” says Bradbery. In keeping with its focus on fitness and lifestyle, Wollongong also hosts a range of sporting events, including triathlons, held by groups like the Illawarra Academy of Sport, the MS Sydney to Gong ride. Various sporting codes are also well represented in the city, for which a wide range of facilities are available.
The Economic Development Manager of Wollongong’s City Council, working through a number of organisations, including the Illawarra Business Chamber and Advantage Wollongong, has worked to raise awareness among local businesses of their need for points of difference. “We’re trying to set Wollongong outside the norm in terms of encouraging businesses to be sustainable by offering a point of difference,” says the Lord Mayor. “The fact is that we’re trying to encourage people to see Wollongong as not only a place to live, but also a place to work and do business.”
The lack of investment in social capital is an issue that Bradbery feels is shared by many cities throughout the country. “I find that by supporting charities and the not-for-profit sector, you are adding to the depth and quality of your people’s lives and lifestyles.” At present, Wollongong has placed a heavy focus on the reengagement of its young people through mentorship and training programs, such as those available at TAFE. There are also many non-government training organisations based in Wollongong, as well as a number of highly reputable charities and social welfare organisations.
The Northern Illawarra is confronting a housing boom, due in part to the cost of housing in the metropolitan area, as well as the lifestyle opportunities within Wollongong. The resultant demand for housing and land releases will be one of the Council’s greatest challenges in the coming year. “We have the Lake Illawarra West land releases, which are going to put a lot of strain on Council because the urgency to get those up and running is clearly understood,” says the Lord Mayor. “With low interest rates and other housing pressures, we have to find ways of helping developers to get their stock out, but at the same time, the demands for connectivity, transport infrastructure, and working with state agencies to get other social infrastructure in place, has put some big demands on Wollongong and Shellharbour’s City Councils.”
Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery was elected to the position of Lord Mayor in September 2011, in the wake of the Council’s dismissal in 2008 on counts of corruption. He immediately made it his aim to restore the Council’s reputation. “I worked with the staff to make sure that our processes and our governance were in a position to offer a sense of awareness that we are open for business, yet at the same doing so through legitimate policies in order to add a sense of stability to the city.” Gordon emphasises his love for Wollongong’s unique nature, and the inspiring progress that it has made. “Being so close to the Sydney Metropolitan Area, the area offers the advantages of getting to the city just as fast as those living in the Western suburbs, yet it’s far enough away to have its own unique identity, its own micro economy, and, what’s more, it’s a city that’s taken over its own destiny and direction,” he says. “If you don’t do it at the local level, don’t expect the state or federal government to necessarily do it for you. We’ve taken control of our destiny.”