Green shoots are emerging in Geraldton’s economy after the mining downturn forced the port city to take stock and diversify.
Todd West remembers all too well the pain in Geraldton when the latest mining boom ended.
“There were so many Geraldton businesses that were invested in the North West, that had lots of capital tied up in providing product to that part of the world, there was a cliff we all fell off,” the glass manufacturer and Mid West Development Commission chairman said.
“A lot of businesses scaled up and when that work disappeared, we had to react quickly and scale back down.
“It sapped a huge amount of confidence out of local businesses and there was nothing locally that could pick that up.
“Had tourism or renewable energy already started, that could have sapped up some load.
“It could have brought more people to town, led to houses being built, etc.
“That didn’t happen and we need to learn from that.”
It was a bitter learning experience, but Mr West believes it could lay the foundation for a wave of new prosperity in the port city.
Couple the downturn with the State Government’s shift in economic focus to “budget repair”, and a change of mindset locally was needed.
Mr West said it forced Geraldton to look outside its traditional industries, to look at public-private partnerships and to identify underutilised sectors with export potential that could drive jobs and growth.
“We can’t rely on existing industry,” he said.
“We have a lot of great industry around region, but some of it is not scalable.
“Mining, fishing and farming can only do so much.
“Crayfishing is a classic example. The fleet is a lot smaller, there are less people and less boats.
“If we want to focus on growth we have to look at adding value to industries that can grow and also attract new industry.”
About three years ago, Geraldton was one of five regional WA centres chosen to create a growth plan, involving input from the three tiers of government, along with chambers of commerce and others.
From that plan, three areas were identified for growth — tourism, horticulture and marine services.
Businesses in those industries were brought together in “clusters” with the aim of growing their industries for the community’s common good, working alongside government and academia.
Out of that work, industries have risen showing promise for the local economy.
Commission chief executive Gavin Treasure said Geraldton and the Mid West, with rising numbers of international tourists, was bucking a Statewide trend.
Chinese visitor numbers to the region have risen from virtually nothing two or three years ago to the early thousands.
State and Federal governments have also announced funding to upgrade and reseal the Geraldton airport, which is expected to drive further growth.
“There is a good news story around the Chinese tourism market,” Mr Treasure said.
“The fact is the State has lost some of the international market share, but it’s a different story in our region, particularly on the back of Geraldton Air Charter’s work.
“We were alongside Geraldton Air Charter in the early days when they took the courageous step of employing a Chinese national with a marketing background onto their team.
“She and Wendy and their team almost single-handedly put the region on the map, using WeeChat and Chinese social media to highlight Pink Lake (Hutt Lagoon) and the Abrolhos Islands.”
Mr Treasure said Geraldton ticked a lot of boxes for the Chinese.
“Our crayfish is a well-regarded product in China — they are a seafaring nation, their favourite colour is red and the crayfish looks like a dragon, their favourite mythical creature,” he said.
“And whoever would have thought Pink Lake was a must-see destination?
“We drive past it on our way to Kalbarri, but it’s on a Chinese visitor’s to-do list when they come here. They love the lake.
“Wendy Mann (of Geraldton Air Charter) flies them over, banks the plane and you can hear the oohs and aaahs.”
That success underscores for Mr West the importance of collaboration and private enterprise taking a risk — and represents a shift in thinking that recognises tourism will become a major component of Geraldton’s economy.
Mr Treasure and Mr West believe Geraldton is, not before time, throwing off its image as a drive-by town.
Consider the multimillion foreshore redevelopment, St Francis Xavier Cathedral precinct, the iconic Gerald Apartment Hotel, wildflowers, coastal nodes, Kalbarri Skywalk and the success of the city as a cruise ship destination.
“But they are small little projects, all building up to hopefully something big,” Mr West said.
That something big could be the Abrolhos Islands.
Next year, the first tranche of $10 million in State Government funding will be rolled out with the view to public and private sector opening up the Wallabi Group for tourism around the story of the Batavia Shipwreck.
“The Abrolhos could be a serious tourism mecca,” Mr Treasure said.
“We have 400 years of history there with the Batavia story — and then there is the Zeewijk story, which no one really talks about.
“Another group of islands, a similar issue — a ship takes the wrong direction and runs aground — but a totally different outcome.
“There’s no loss of life, the community comes together, they build a ship and sail north to Java.
“There is much more over there as well, particularly with aquatic species and other fauna.”
Investor interest is also growing in aquaculture.
Fishing and processing company West Australian Octopus Group invested more than $14 million establishing operations in Geraldton in September last year.
According to the commission’s assistant director of economic development and agribusiness Mike Bowley this will lead to more than 30 full-time jobs.
Yellowtail kingfish aquaculture trials have also led to Indian Ocean Fresh Australia going commercial, growing yellowtail kingfish to scale off the Geraldton coast — “meeting and exceeding market expectations,” according to Mr Treasure. “For those States who’ve done this well — SA, Tasmania and NSW — the aquaculture industry has been a significant employer of people, while indirect employers of other contractors support the industry,” he said.
Recently, Tasmanian-based Huon Aquaculture, the second-largest aquaculture company in Australia, won the rights to establish an aquaculture site off the Abrolhos Islands.
On the horticulture front, Mr Bowley points to Geraldton’s winter Lebanese cucumber industry, now supplying 80 per cent of the Australian market and generating “significant” jobs, with potential for further growth.
All three men believe Geraldton is on the cusp of taking another step economically, along a similar path as Mildura, in Victoria’s north-west, which is enjoying a boom with Chinese investment in its fresh food sector.
“We know it can be done, there are no issues about that,” Mr Bowley said. “It’s about activation.”
Mr West has also noticed renewed high-calibre investor interest in the past three months, something he hasn’t seen in the past five years. “Geraldton is starting to be a beacon,” he said. “They know we’re open for business.”