TL;DR: my hometown has been a depressed and despairing place for all my life, yet on my most recent visit I was struck – truly struck – how much the city has changed for the better. It was breathtaking. This post is a reflection on my hometown’s history over the last three and a half decades (to get a sense of how far we fell behind) and some observations about what’s really working to turn the place around, creating an incredibly bright future.
The centre of Wollongong coming back to life. Photo: Robert Peet, Illawarra Mercury
Update: looks like this post has touched a chord – more info on the response in this separate post.
I’m writing this on a layover in Auckland flying back to San Francisco from one of my quarterly trips to Wollongong, my home town, located an hour south of Sydney. With more than half of the AffinityLive team based in our Wollongong engineering office, I make sure to get back to spend quality time with the team every few months – especially given the growth in our Australian team (up 150% in the last year).
Returning to visit my home town every few months – spending time with mum and staying in the house where I grew up – has given me a really interesting perspective to observe the changes happening in Wollongong. Like when you catch up with distant family members or friends with kids only occasionally, being an infrequent observer helps you see starkly the changes every-day observers see only gradually. Unlike kids who are “getting so big” and “growing up so fast”, a city can be getting noticeably better, or worse.
Noticing changes in our hometowns when we return isn’t anything unique or unusual of course – it happens to any of us who’ve moved away when we come back for a visit. When I notice the changes in Wollongong, though, I’m looking with more than the usual sense of nostalgia.
A Decade of Regional Development Efforts
For more than 10 years, through my early 20’s to early 30’s, I was involved in civic activities to try and make the city a bit less dark, dreary and depressing. On the civic front, this included being a foundation board member at RDA Illawarra (like a regional council/county) and a board member of the Wollongong Hawks (our national basketball league team). On a professional/technology front, this included co-founding (if that’s the right word) initiatives like StartPad (precursor to iAccelerate), ICTI and Digital Wollongong. All told, I’m guessing I spent around 2500-3000 hours working voluntarily to improve the prospects for employment, liveability, and the economy of Wollongong.
Like many hard(er) working champions of Wollongong, I toiled away because I believed in the potential of the city: the incredible human capital in the thousands of smart, educated people graduating from the University of Wollongong, the amazing natural environment with our mountains and beaches, and our close proximity to Sydney (and all that this overpriced, congested, global city offers).
But, while it was rarely discussed among those of us championing the city, I also knew deep down how dark and depressing the situation in the city was. Staying upbeat and positive in the face of a depressing reality is OK in short bursts, but trying to keep it up indefinitely will send anyone crazy eventually. And there were a lot of us showing crazy cracks.
Structural Suffering & Depression
Born in the last 100 days of the 1970’s, I’d never known my home town to be prosperous or successful.
As a city dependent on steel manufacturing and coal mining, the 80’s were particularly brutal to Wollongong. Technology and international competition reduced the steelmaking workforce by 80% (from almost 29,000 employees in the late 1970’s to 6,000 in 1996). By the middle of the 1980’s, a collapse in the price of coal meant the higher-cost underground coal mining industry couldn’t extract coal profitably competing with cheaper open-cut methods, causing numerous mines to completely close.
The knock-on effects outside these direct employers – transport, maintenance, equipment etc – were massive hits on a region with a population of 200,000 people. Port Kembla, once a bustling town, effectively died (except for the prostitution).
When I was studying economics in high school, Wollongong’s unemployment rate was 5 percentage points higher than the national rate, and things were much worse for young people. Many of the “blue collar” jobs our newly retrenched locals had the skills to fill didn’t exist in the country, much less the city.
Social Disadvantage and Despair
In addition to this “structural unemployment” caused by major industry decline, the other big challenge was/is the massive-scale “social housing” developments (in the US they’re called “projects”) built in the north and south of the city in the 1950’s. The consequence is that the city has tens of thousands of disadvantaged people, many of whom didn’t count in the unemployment statistics because they didn’t bother looking for work (either because they believed it wasn’t out there or they were content to eek out an existence on welfare payments and/or less legitimate means). Not looking for work means a lower “labour force participation rate” – Wollongong residents were 15% more likely to be part of this “hidden unemployed” than the Australian average (Wollongong at 56.2%; Australia at 64.6%).
If the fifteen years to the middle of the 90’s were tough, things didn’t get better with the boom Australia experienced over the next decade: instead of catching up from a rough period, Wollongong fell even further behind. From 1996 to 2006, job growth in the Wollongong area was barely half that of the rest of Australia (Youth Unemployment in Australia, Burrows, 2009, page 5).
In summary, you had a place that had been mauled by structural change, had a much greater than average number of people who’d “dropped out” of the economy (at least) – a pretty poor situation to then get hit with “the recession we had to have” in the early 90’s.
If this wasn’t bad enough, when things turned good with the longest expansion since WWII for the rest of the country, Wollongong was instead just slowly staggering forward, creating jobs at half the rate of the rest of the country.
Dark Clouds & Self Delusion
The collective effect of all of this was an often dark, despairing cloud hanging over the spirit of the city. That the only “feel good” leader of the city I can remember was later found to be a paedophile (and murdered “Primal Fear” style) is as damning as it sounds. Other leaders like my friend David Campbell mainly tried to minimize harm and manage the situation, while many other “leaders” who were just in it for themselves and their crooked mates held the city back. Given the politics of the region (very safe seat requiring no electoral benefit for any government to give a shit about), even if there was a credible government turnaround plan based on leadership and investment, there wasn’t the political willingness to fund it, much less leadership to lead it.
While the city still had all of its natural beauty, you could see why Wollongong was sneered at and looked down upon by most other Australians.
Efforts to change perceptions, while well meaning, stood no real chance of lasting success because they projected fiction, not reality (locals will remember the “Image Campaign” and the ‘we all know it’s bullshit’ tagline “City of Innovation”).
To illustrate, imagine the experience of a visitor who’d caught the train to Wollongong; they’d have to navigate crowds of bogans, junkies and petty crims, run the gauntlet of western Crown St and the dark and violent mall (see video below), pass the eyesore of the entertainment centre, to finally make it to the beauty of the beach and Flagstaff Hill.
Don Draper couldn’t market our way out of that reality. The fact we tried is testament to our tenacity and belief in the potential of the city.
First Signs of Promise
I remember being involved in a project in 2006 called the “Wollongong City Centre Revitalization Strategy“. It was spearheaded by the state Department of Planning under Frank Sartor, and a special agency was set up, headed by the impressive and energetic Chris Johnson to develop plans for half a dozen cities in the state. Wollongong was the first to get the treatment (probably because it needed it most), and I was one of the committee members providing input and reviewing the ideas/research coming out of the Department of Planning and the Office of the Government Architect.
For as long as I could remember, ideas to improve the city’s situation were vested in “projects”, most of which were little more than thought bubbles. There was the project to install a gondola, Cairns-style, to the top of Mt Keira to boost tourism. There was the project to build a boardwalk, Atlantic-City-style into the Pacific ocean off City Beach. There were innumerable individual property development projects, all of which needed to get a planning exception approved by Council because the City’s land-use plan was a few decades out of date and anything of any significance height or size wise was impermissible. Some of the projects worked out well – Innovation Campus – and others were massive mistakes that will rob the city of potential for generations (building the windowless Entertainment centre and rebuilding a barely used Stadium on prime beach-front land are right up there).
The City Centre Revitalization plan was different. Rather than focus on a specific issue (or two), it identified a series of a dozen that the city could do to revitalize the city centre. The plan applied research and best practices from around the world (Wollongong certainly wasn’t the first city to find itself in a depressive downward spiral). Some of them were needlessly controversial (build higher density and really tall buildings around transport infrastructure like the station – oh no, tall buildings must be evil!?!). Some of them were more aspirational, and others were just common sense (yet the fact they still had many detractors showed how there is an inverse correlation between the spare time some people have to complain and their actual levels of common sense).
The strange thing about the process was just how obvious and sensible the whole thing was: identify the problems, create a series of complementary visions to address them, and then change planning controls and policies to encourage them. Some inspired decisions by government (the free Green Bus) played their part, but on the whole it was about setting the system up (with better, modern rules and incentives) so the economic energy of the private sector could turn high level visions into concrete reality. The community’s role in helping shape the plan was at the planning stage, not the implementation stage – instead of arguing about building X or traffic change Y, the high-level blueprint right at the beginning was the focus of input. Of course, community participation was fairly poor (less than 1% of the city’s population made a submissions), but from what I’m told by people who do this sort of consultation for a living, the website we built and the town-hall meetings we held resulted in about 5x the normal amount of participation than this sort of thing normally gets.
The main pieces of the vision, after debate and dilution (opening the mall to slow moving traffic outside core shopping hours and bonus building height (or FSR) rules for buildings subject to design competitions being the two I most regret seeing sidelined), the rules were codified as a new Local Environment Plan (LEP – the legal document that outlines what can and can’t be built by “zone”) by early 2007. The stage was set, but then things appeared to make a big turn for the worst.
Darkest Before the Dawn
As they say, if you want things to change, you’ve got to change things. However, changing things on a city scale is a pretty capital intensive undertaking. Building new buildings, upgrading transport, roadworks and other cityscape improvements aren’t cheap, fast or easy. With most of the things needing to change in the city being privately owned property, it also wasn’t something you could mandate top-down – the private sector needs to want to change, want to invest.
All of this was going to be tough, a long game. Then two things happened – the city became embroiled in its largest ever corruption scandal (March 2008), and then not long after that the global financial crisis hit (Lehman Bros collapsed in September 2008, freezing credit markets globally).
The ICAC investigation into the corruption in the Wollongong planning and approvals department was dynamite – many locals knew of stories of corruption through shadowy networks that operated with such perceived impunity that they didn’t even bother trying to hide their behaviour, but to have secret recordings and explosive evidence that touched all three boxes of money, sex and power was a massive shock to even the most cynical resident.
From daily “table of knowledge” meeting in broad daylight outside a beachside “cafe”, to special assignments of project assessments to ensure the bad eggs could operate with official cover but no oversight, and then finally the dirty money and sex that bound the whole thing together, the whole thing was an epic and embarrassing drama carried extensively by the national media. The effect was to reinforce a reputation of the city as being full to the brim of the kind of sketchy, moronic mafioso that outsiders already associated the place with.
It felt like a body blow, and undid any achievements of the “image campaign” from outside the city. Trying to run a business with clients in Sydney and Canberra from Wollongong was nigh-on impossible – the entire city was tarred with the brush of these corrupt criminals.
Following the ICAC investigation, the city thankfully got the cleanout and fresh start it desperately needed from a governance and leadership perspective. All of the Councillors were sacked and replaced by administrators from outside the region. A new General Manager was appointed, and the newly instated rules around projects that came out of the City Centre Revitalization Strategy (and other improvements outside the city centre) gave the defined planning rules their first real upgrade in decades, clearing the path for a series of new projects not facilitated by case-by-case deal making.
On the economic front, changes in the costs of finance meant barely viable projects approved under the old regime (Belmorgan anyone?) started biting the dust before they’d done much more than acquire and consolidate land parcels.
The Great GPT Gamble
In an incredibly fortunate piece of great timing, the city’s largest property developer/operator, the listed GPT Property Group, had to make a decision about dramatically upgrading their shopping precinct in the city. One of the big hold-ups of such a decision – budgeted at $200 million – was whether competitive developments were going to spring up leading to an oversupply in large format retail and entertainment space – no one wants an expensive white elephant. With the looming financial crisis sinking competitive projects like the Dwyers site redevelopment, GPT had the balance sheet and access to funds to back the massive new Crown Central development.
In one of the most critical decisions for the city in many years, and with a freshly cleaned out council executive overseen by outsiders with a focus on pragmatism over parochial politics, the massive project to remake 15% of the city core in one go was approved by the GPT board in Melbourne in 2010. Two years after it had been approved by Council but put on ice by GPT because of the financial crisis, the project was now a go. The decision was even more brave given what happened 12 months later: the steelworks shut down its export business and lost another 1000 jobs.
At the time of GPTs decision (late 2010), it really wasn’t clear (in my mind at least) what the significance of the project to the city would be. With the move to online shopping, and regional centres with closer proximity to suburbs and easier parking getting $300 million dollar injections at the same time, focusing more of the city on retail seemed questionable at best. Thankfully though, GPT’s focus was as much on hospitality and entertainment as retail – a massive win for livability in the city.
When combined with the City tearing out of the disgraceful “bird cage”, the crapitheatre and a lot of the seating in the old mall (city tested, bogan/junkie approved) these two parts of the vision from 2005 have come together to dramatically reshape the city.
Similarly, a number of residential projects – with ground-level retail/restaurant activation – have taken advantage of the new “baked in” development rights from the 2006 vision’s upgrade to the planning codes has created a boom in inner-city residential development; today we see thousands of people actually living in the city core, giving it life after dark, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.
Of course, both projects have taken their time, and it is only now in 2015 that the dividends are really paying off. These dividends – more competition, more choices, more quality, more food/cafes, less straight retail – are self-evident for anyone, but it is the change in the city culture and vibe that has the most appeal and makes me most excited.
More Buskers & Baristas and Less Bogans
By the start of 2015, the transformation was clear for anyone to see, and it was awesome.
From a practical point of view, the addition of Coles to the city centre has made it much more convenient to get stuff for the office or wander over at lunch time to grab some groceries for dinner – working in the city centre is now really really desirable.
But while utilities like Coles and Target help with convenience, it is the proliferation of places to eat and drink (combined with the new small-bar laws creating establishments you can go to without a real fear of being punched or glassed by an aggressive bogan) that has really made the difference.
The city centre is now a place you want to be.
On Thursday night I walked through the western end of the mall, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. A dozen or more of the city’s better restaurants had shown up and created pop-up take away dining experiences – for my American friends, imagine food trucks without the need for big trucks. The city was absolutely buzzing, with a singer-guitarist putting on a show, and in other parts of the mall there were other talented buskers doing their thing. The experience repeated (with differences in vendors) on Friday with the popular farmer’s markets through the mall. Walking through the stores was great too: there were plenty of shoppers; the place was packed. People were smiling and enjoying being together with strangers in a public space.
The differences to a similar shopping experience from a few years earlier couldn’t have been more stark. On a normal Thursday night at 7pm, the mall would be full of hood-rats who’d come in on the train as packs and acting like wannabe-gangbangers, sitting around, leering and screaming at each other across the mall. No one was happy – it was the depression and darkness of the city’s psyche manifest in hundreds of bogans and junkies just existing. Early in the evening they generally kept to themselves, but by 10pm the mall became a fairly dangerous place to be, with numerous bashings occurring almost every weekend (see video above).
The best thing about the changes in the centre of the city over the last few years is the effect it has had on social norms. Now there’s more buskers, baristas and cocktail barmen in the city centre than bogans yelling “fark off ya caaaant” while they suck back another pack of Winfield Blues. This doesn’t mean the city isn’t open, welcome and inclusive – it just means that expectations of behaviour and a default attitude is now a positive, aspirational and friendly one rather than a dark dog-eat-dog mindset of the depressed and despondent.
A sense of community has returned – and it is wonderful.
The Reinforcing Loop
The great thing about this amazing transformation is that is creates a positive feedback loop. With the city centre being enjoyable (for the first time in my life at least), people who visit will visit more often. They’ll look to rent or buy apartments in the city (rather than fearing the occasional necessary visit), and spend even more time in the city.
With more regular people enjoying the city each day/week, the social attitude of the city is changing. Bogans become just another part of the city’s colourful tapestry rather than the dominant negative force dragging the place down and scaring other people away.
People want to be in Wollongong, which brings more people who aren’t in the depressed and disadvantaged category, which normalises the mix of the city and lifts the experience for everyone (including the bogans, and more importantly their kids who stand a better chance of breaking the intergenerational welfare/poverty cycle if they see things and people they’d like to emulate).
This means as more people visit or move to the city (and the University brings in over 10,000 new non-bogan people every year) and really, truly enjoy being there, they stay and bring their friends in too. Instead of an “Image Campaign” telling stories of barely evident aspirations through an inadequate marketing budget, the city starts marketing itself through the tens of thousands of people who now truly do love the place.
With these people come the opportunities for more jobs and higher incomes in the city. Attempts to bring in outside employers to create jobs were usually doomed to fail by the fact that no-one from outside Wollongong really wanted to move here, something that is rapidly being solved. Additionally, a vibrant and enjoyable city means more young people graduating university are likely to hang around and try to create their own jobs through entrepreneurial ventures – Wollongong’s lower cost of living, proximity to Sydney Airport and plentiful supply of smart people coming out of the University makes it a very legitimate place to start a global venture – AffinityLive is testament to that.
While only a small and anecdotal statistic, more than half of our new hires this year are people who want to come back to Wollongong from Sydney or Melbourne – not because they have a sense of obligation to be close to aging family members, but because life in all its dimensions is so much better than dealing with Sydney’s “let’s stop trying to make the city better now the Olympics is over” traffic and transport disasters.
For the first time in my life, my home town is actually on the front foot and you can feel the city is finally on track to realize its incredible potential.
Thinking about the future, the main thing is to keep doing more of the same. This means more buildings and development, particularly in the city centre, with higher densities and heights so new housing supply is as affordable as possible and ensures these new investments in making the city livable – which depend on shoppers, diners and guests to succeed financially – have the number of patrons they need to flourish.
Similarly, the success of the Wollongong city core can and should be replicated across other regional cities. Thirroul, Corrimal, Figtree, Dapto and Port Kembla would do well to follow the lead of Wollongong City: setting clear, generous rules around building heights and densities to encourage more people to actually live, rather than occasionally shop, in them.
There’s also a number of parts of the city that have been left out of the revitalization so far, rotting and decaying. The prime example that comes to mind is Wollongong Harbour. With its sorry and barely-used fishing fleet, asbestos filled shed on the central pier, this generally under-used and under-loved focal point of the city has a lot of potential. Some work that I was involved in in 2009 outlined some ideas about unlocking the potential of this amazing space, included in the Wollongong Harbour Consultative Committee Report – it would be awesome to see the same renewal we’ve seen in the city centre happen here.
Of course, encouraging building and residential development is all well and good, but people still need to be able to find and keep quality jobs.
Part of this will come organically as the city continues to be more desirable as a place to live, visit and thus work and companies come to the city because of the talented people here, not because of a supply of cheap, unskilled and unemployed labour.
Another part of it will happen through startups and entrepreneurial effort creating new opportunities from the city, for its residents, with customers predominantly from outside the region – hooking onto the success stories we have and investing in the next wave of entrepreneurs will also be critical to success.
The city has a long way to go to realize its potential, but the most exciting thing is that it seems well on the way to achieving it, underpinned by strong fundamentals of strong human capital and a great living environment (in both the built and natural form).
If we can just keep this momentum going and rightly celebrate our successes so far, this current phase of “the brightest the city has ever been” will be a phase we look back on and smile as only the beginning.