Ron Posselt and Cr Paul Hogan: General manager and mayor respectively of Greater Taree City Council. Photo courtesy Manning River Times.
We talk to Greater Taree City Council’s Economic Development Manager, Chris Ryan about the future of our local area.
What does your role as the Economic Development Manager involve?
Economic development is a very diverse role. Ultimately, it’s about improving the quality of life for local residents. This is normally achieved through employment and business growth. So one of the key aspects of economic development is about attracting investment to the area and creating jobs. It’s also about looking after the businesses that are already here, helping with retention and expansion.
Tourism also fits under my portfolio, as does management of the airport and most Council properties. So it’s quite a diverse role, and every day is completely different.
When and how did you become involved in the Council of Taree?
I started in this role in 2003. It was a new position created by Council. I moved from Gunnedah in the North West of New South Wales, where I was in a similar position for about eight years. My background, however, was in hotel and motel management prior to that. And in fact, Taree was familiar to me, as my brothers and I used to own and run the Exchange Hotel.
The area has many great attributes. Which do you rate as the strongest?
Wow, too many to list, but there are a number worthy of mention here. Of course we have the beaches, the Manning River, the climate, great shopping and all those desirable attributes, but I’d like to mention some of the little known things that I think are real strengths of the area.
Firstly, not that long ago, it used to be about a five to six hour trip from Taree to Sydney. It’s now less that three and getting closer by the day. This is a huge strength, as many people want to ‘get out of Sydney’ but they still like to be close so that they can go back and visit.
The natural assets of the valley are also a huge strength. Not only do they attract a lot of tourism expenditure from outside the area, they provide a beautiful, natural surrounding for the local people.
Another key strength is the local economy, which is very diverse and quite strong. An independent economic study done not that long ago indicated that (on a per capita basis), the industry in the Manning Valley was more diverse than that of Newcastle.
Finally, the most important strength in my view of the Manning Valley is its people. We have a lot of community minded people here and some very switched on business people. I’ve considered it a privilege to work with many innovative and industrious businesses right here in the Manning Valley that are proving themselves worldwide.
What are the biggest challenges for the Manning Valley that you can see for 2009?
As with the rest of the world, the economic crisis will be a major concern for local businesses and local people in 2009. After a long period of having such a strong economy, we need to prepare for some major challenges.
Toward the end of last year, we were lucky to see the development of the new Bunnings Warehouse, the Karingal Gardens aged care facility, the hospital upgrade and opening of a number of businesses such as Bing Lee and Fuso Truck Sales.
There are also many other developments in the pipeline, such as the Pitt Street development (Figtrees) and the Brimbin New Town proposal. All of these developments are very positive and demonstrate a real confidence in the future of the Manning Valley from the private sector, but I’m concerned that we’re all in for a tough road ahead.
How does the future look for the area in terms of growth and jobs?
Notwithstanding the financial crisis mentioned earlier, there is still a national skills shortage which is seen as a key issue for many businesses – especially the larger ones. We will, however, continue our efforts in filling those skill gaps to support local industry and work with businesses that are considering establishing themselves (or relocating) in the area.
What has been the most fulfilling project that you have been involved in?
It’s probably not the biggest project, but the ‘Relocate Here’ campaign has been very fulfilling for me. It is a project designed to attract skilled people to the area. We identified our target market and put together a really well thought out campaign that goes beyond the ‘glossy brochures’.
It provides a ‘backend’ system to actually ‘help’ people move to the area. I was lucky enough to enlist the help of Stephen Pegus, who owned a very large advertising agency in Sydney before making the ‘sea change’ to the Manning Valley. Stephen put in countless hours of voluntary work to develop this campaign.
We identified the need for people to find a job was a key factor. So we developed a web-based application that matches skilled people with local businesses.
Unlike other similar systems (such as Seek) it works in reverse. We get people to visit a form on our website and tell us what their skills are. Their information is automatically packaged up into an email and sent to all the businesses that are specifically looking for those types of skills.
When the businesses receive this email, they simply need to click on a link (if they’re interested in this person). An email is automatically packaged up and sent back to the person looking for a job with the company details so that they can be matched together and confidentiality is maintained right to the end. (See www.tellusyourskills.com.au).
We’ve had thousands of people register on the system and often hear stories from local businesses that have attracted the right people using the system. It’s been so effective, I now market it to other Councils and have sold seven licenses bringing in tens of thousands of dollars of income to Council plus on-going licence fees.
We developed a similar system to help people find a home. They simply fill in a basic form on our website ‘telling us’ what sort of home they want, where they want it and how much they’re prepared to pay. When they press ‘submit’, their information is sent to every real estate agent and property developer in the Manning Valley, who can then become ‘our helpers’ to help us achieve our goal. These and other incentives are detailed on the ‘Relocate here’ section of our website and are detailed in the ‘Welcome kits’ we send out to people, which include a DVD and written material.
I was proud when Council won a National Award for Economic Development Excellence for this campaign.
If you could go back in time, have there been any mistakes made that you would change?
I’d like to make three points. Firstly, Professor Percy Allan recently made available his independent review of Council’s assets and infrastructure. The findings demonstrate that (generally) Council has underspent on infrastructure, leaving us with assets that are fast approaching their ‘use by date’. By and large, this is due to Council not receiving enough income through rates and government grants.
While Council has made a number of attempts to seek a rate rise, this area is still one of the lowest rated areas in Australia. Comments made during these periods included “We can’t afford a rate rise”, or “We’re just ‘poor’ Taree”. I think it’s time to move beyond that mindset. We can’t afford not to rebuild our infrastructure. The longer we wait, the more we will have to pay (ultimately) for these infrastructure assets.
Secondly, I think we need to ‘talk Taree and the Manning Valley up’ more, as the area has so much to offer. It has beautiful natural assets, plenty of water, close proximity to Sydney, excellent health services, a solid business base, great climate, excellent beaches, the beautiful Manning River…
The list goes on, and I could talk about this sort of stuff for ages. But it disappoints me to see the many stories in the local media saying ‘how bad things are’, or someone ‘whinging about something minor’. I think we need to move on and start appreciating just how good we have it. We are the envy of many.
Finally, another key issue is not just to examine mistakes made in the past, but consider the potential mistakes we could be making right now that will affect future generations. I work with many people and businesses that have moved to the area. Many people come from places like the Central Coast. They make comments to me like: “The Manning Valley is so beautiful and pristine and untouched. We see in the Manning Valley what we saw in other coastal areas thirty years ago, but they’ve wrecked it there now. Infrastructure is pushed to the limit, there are very poorly planned residential ghettos and we’re glad to get out of there.”
I think one of Council’s challenges now is to ensure that the appropriate planning is in place to encourage ‘quality’ development and discourage ‘undesirable’ development and ensure that the infrastructure will be in place to meet future demands.
Thank you Chris.