City of Albany: delivering economic development through tourism and infrastructure

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While most of Western Australia has been riding the boom-and-bust roller coaster of the mining industry, Albany continues to show remarkable stability with consistent growth in infrastructure.

“It’s a very comfortable place to live,” Mayor Dennis Wellington remarks. Having lived in Albany since childhood, the Mayor has seen the city go through an extreme transformation. “It has been an interesting ride. We’ve gone from being a somewhat sedate place, to now somewhere that we think [has] enormous potential. I just love the change.”

With a population of more than 37,000, Albany has a small town charm and an abundance of historical landmarks. At the same time, it has managed to evolve into an increasingly cosmopolitan area that supports both a growing tourism sector as well as a local bar, café, and entertainment scene. It is a city that is ripe for investment and is ready to build new infrastructure as well as take on new residents.

Thanks to its pleasantly cool weather and its access to picturesque countryside and coastline, Albany has seen an influx of retirees in particular. With a new $160 million hospital, one of the quickly expanding sectors of its economy has been medical care for these older residents. “We’ve had an increase in the health areas of our business down here—30% in the last five years,” Mayor Wellington says. “Two new aged-care homes have also been approved recently, about $60 million in development which will be completed within the next year and a half.”

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Albany’s Middleton Beach is just one of the many attractions driving growth to the region

Health is not the only growing sector, however, and retirees are not the only people eager to take advantage of Albany’s beautiful beaches and expanding resources. The city has experienced a 6% increase in tourism per year, with 900,000 tourists visiting Albany in 2016. A new hotel development to accommodate this growth is in the works. The 12-story hotel will be the largest in the area, as well as the closest to the water in all of Western Australia, as it sits only 50 meters from the shore of Middleton Beach, which is set to be transformed with a number of residential and commercial developments also in the immediate surroundings. “It is a place which is absolutely pristine in terms of its environment and its location. It’s well-protected, and we’d like to see a major infrastructure there where we can cater for larger groups of tourists and have a major focus of the town.”

It is one of the city’s two hotel development sites, the other sitting just south of the main street on the marina waterfront alongside a $70 million entertainment centre built in 2010. Once developed, both hotels will provide for significant growth in the tourism and business sectors. Mayor Wellington hopes that by attracting larger and larger numbers of visitors, new capital will find its way to Albany as investors seek to develop the areas around the hotels.

Albany is in the midst of building up its walkway and bike path infrastructure, in an effort to make the city more walkable—and in turn, healthier and more convenient—for both tourists and residents. “We’ve started a program where we’re using a lot of e-bikes around the place; we’re getting people back into cycling,” says Mayor Wellington.

Even the older business sectors of Albany have been seeing growth. Albany has a rich agricultural business that has always served as a major portion of the local economy. “100% of the free-range pork for Coles supermarket comes out of this region,” Mayor Wellington explains, “because it’s the best place in Australia to grow free range pork.” Wheat, sheep, canola and woodchips are also major exports of the area.

After the wild success of the Anzac Centenary Commemoration in 2014, which brought 40,000 visitors, Albany saw a dramatic increase in interest from surrounding areas and the creation of new business precincts in the city. According to the Mayor, this was the “catalyst” that pushed Albany into its current state of growth. “The [business] areas that were created were the old areas of town that had sort of been let go a little bit, and the streets and the buildings were redone; it created an environment down there where people could go to and relax and enjoy the surrounds.” The city has encouraged local restaurants and cafés to set their tables outside, and to create a more attractive outdoors atmosphere for customers so that they could admire Albany’s natural beauty.

The Anzac Centenary also provided Albany with a lot of national exposure, and led to the building of the National Anzac Centre, a monument to our Anzacs that has seen over 200,000 visitors since its opening. “It’s a display which is second to none,” Mayor Wellington remarks. “Thousands of visitors flock to the center every month, many of whom had ancestors who were part of Anzac and departed Australia through Albany’s harbour. During World War I, Albany saw 41,000 soldiers leave its shores, a third of which did not come back.”

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Albany’s recently launched National Anzac Centre has seen over 200,000 visitors since its opening

With the rapid increase in tourism due to these developments, the Albany City Council sought to form an alliance with the nearby shires of Denmark and Plantagenet. “The fact is, as things change—I mean, things are changing all over the world—nobody, in terms of tourism, recognises [geographic] boundaries,” Said Mayor Wellington. Many tourist destinations exist across these three neighboring areas, from the vineyards of Mount Barker to the Valley of the Giants tree-top walk of Denmark to the adventure trails and whale-watching in Albany. The three towns have begun to market themselves as The Amazing South Coast after realising that their core customer base had little recognition of the area under its former name, the “Great Southern” region.

With this re-branding and more aggressive marketing, Albany hopes to raise its influx of tourists from 900,000 per year—or roughly 2.5 million visitor nights—to 3 million visitor nights by 2021. With roughly 85% of the tourist market made up of residents from other towns and cities in Western Australia, Albany also hopes to expand to overseas markets once its hotel project is up and running.

The state, for its part, has guaranteed $135 million in funding to Albany for various infrastructure projects, which the Mayor says will help catalyse the flow of even more private investment into the city. In particular, the most important infrastructure changes that will occur in Albany and its neighboring towns are road improvements. “Roads are what we live and die on around here,” he says. Perth is one of the most isolated capital cities in the world. It and the other smaller towns in Western Australia are connected by a vital network of roads and little else, and so roads are of particular economic importance. “95% of the people that come [to Albany] come here by road.”

The funding is also expected to go into sporting fields, tourism, and, importantly, industry development and investment attraction. For instance, with fairly minor improvements to their airport, Albany could begin exporting some of its crops to Asia. This is a major area of growth that the city is looking to exploit in the near future because of the relative vicinity of Asian countries and the convenience of shared time zones. Ironically, this plan to expand overseas export is within closer reach than exporting these same goods nationally because of Western Australia’s isolation. “If you had to put it on a truck and take it to the rest of Australia, we’re a long, long way from anything, but in terms of Asia, we’re not,” Mayor Wellington says. “The location of Albany makes it an ideal exit point to Asia, even more so than Queensland.”

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Albany’s new hotel development will be the closest to the water in all of Western Australia neighboring their $70 million entertainment centre

With this growing economy also comes a need for an education workforce. As jobs become more available in Albany, the city has been establishing better education facilities. They have a regional university—University of Western Australia—with 500 students, and they hope to raise the number to 2,000 by 2025. Wanting to attract overseas students as well, Albany has been erecting student housing close to the university and shopping centers. According to Mayor Wellington, growth in the education sector will impact the city economically in several ways: For one, it will attract visiting family members of students, which will continue to fuel the tourism sector; secondly, it will help create new jobs.

“These are all things we can build on over a period of time,” he says. His intention is for Albany to become “one of the best cities to live in,” while still maintaining its character. One factor that is helping to build Albany’s future is the development of “clusters,” which are local business entities that would normally be in direct competition working together on given projects to solve problems. For instance, clusters of farmers are investing in scientific research which has helped them to grow better barley for new and innovative types of beer. Business clusters like these allow an area to gain a good reputation in certain industries, which attracts further business.

Agriculture is not the only sector in which this clustering strategy works. Albany hopes to expand its aquaculture industry thanks to the appeal of its pristine waters, and also hopes to expand its wineries. In fact, 26% of the state’s wine is already grown in the region with many well-established vineyards in Denmark and Mount Barker already producing large volumes of quality wine Mayor Wellington emphasises that a spirit of cooperation among individual businesses in these sectors is what will ultimately move the region’s economic prospects to the next level. “We’d like to see it formed together as a conglomerate, to take the whole market to a certain area, and then everyone sells out of that. Still in competition, but then in cooperation at the same time, so it’s a different way of doing business and it’s a different way of looking at things.”

According to the Mayor, these clusters are part of the long-term growth plan of Albany, but they can also offer immediate impact in the industries that are already well established in the region. “That’s why we want to start immediately in looking at the places and looking at the things that we already do well,” he says.

There have been some subtle changes to Albany’s existing infrastructure as well, in order to accommodate tourists and create more vibrancy and activity within the community. One of these efforts has been the revitalisation of the city centre, which has transformed the area from a major four-lane roadway with little room for wandering pedestrians, to a two-lane road with a low speed limit. “The center of town is not supposed to be a place for cars, it’s a place where you’re parking, where people walk around, where they go to the shops,” the Mayor says. “The traffic has slowed down to about 40 km per hour, there’s plenty of parking there, and we want to get people out of their cars, walking around the shops, and walking into the shops and spending their money.”

With a host of restaurants, shops, and cafés, the city centre has proven to be a location that is growing in popularity. It has also been an increasing source of revenue thanks to the redesigned streets that encourage people to step out of their cars. “You don’t spend too many dollars when you’re sitting in a car, but walking around you tend to do that,” explains Mayor Wellington. Albany is also moving its visitor centre from the South of the city to the centre of town and has plans to re-purpose its old town hall, built in 1888, into an art gallery.

Albany is also building up its walkway and bike path infrastructure in an effort to make the city more walkable—and in turn, healthier and more convenient—for both tourists and residents.

Albany is looking to attract 3 million visitor nights by 2021 by making the city more walkable for tourists and residents alike
Albany is looking to attract 3 million visitor nights by 2021 by making the city more walkable for tourists and residents alike

“We’ve started a program where we’re using a lot of e-bikes around the place; we’re getting people back into cycling,” says Mayor Wellington. In addition, Albany is in the midst of a $27 million dollar upgrade of its sports complex, which can house football, soccer, and cricket games. They also have 7 indoor basketball courts, and 7 fully-lit outdoor sports fields. On Saturdays, there can be as many as 1,400 children playing soccer and 1,200 children playing football. The city also boasts 195 basketball teams. “We need to get kids basically out of their houses and off the computer games, getting about, running around in the field and exercising more and playing sport.” Its all part of the City of Albany’s aim to provide better facilities so youth and the wider community can exercise and in turn live healthier and happier lives.

Looking towards the future, Albany hopes to grow its population to 50,000 by the year 2025. The city already has the infrastructure to handle such a population, thanks to their prior experience with tens of thousands of tourists. In other words, the groundwork has already been laid, and Albany is ready for its next major economic expansion. “We’re ready to go,” Mayor Wellington says.