Mackay is on the cusp of great opportunity.
Mackay is on the cusp of great opportunity. Rae Wilson

It's time for Mackay to shed its identity crisis

MACKAY has long had an identity crisis.

Whether it belongs to North Queensland or Central Queensland has been a source of much debate, while the mining rollercoasters have left Mackay picking up the pieces of the economy, housing and unemployment peaks and valleys.

But this city, and the prosperous region surrounding it, is on the cusp of great opportunity.

Demographer Bernard Salt said the State Government predicted the Mackay region's population would hit 198,000 by 2030.

"I would call that steady as she goes. The forecast shows confidence in this region. You should demand the State Government put their money where their mouth is," he said.

"Unemployment and small business data, along with population projections all showed strong growth in Mackay over the next 13 years.

"Mackay shouldn't be modest in its ambition. You should be bold and ambitious in your region and the quality of life you want for your family for the next 10 years to come."


Ranking cities around Australia by population, Mr Salt found the Mackay region - including the Mackay, Isaac and Whitsunday council areas - is the 14th largest urban mass in Australia.

Stripping away the capital cities, the Mackay region is seventh largest and Mackay city, using council boundaries, would be the 12th biggest regional population in the country.

If we want to talk truly regional, we cut out those less than two hours from a capital city - Geelong, the Gold and Sunshine coasts, Newcastle, Wollongong, Toowoomba, Ballarat and Bendigo.

That leaves us with Townsville, Cairns, Albury, Mackay and Rockhampton as the top five regional populations across Australia. Mackay as a region comes in second, while the city alone comes in fourth.


Future Mackay
Future Mackay Rae Wilson

What does this tell us? Mr Salt suggests we should compare ourselves to these regional centres, work out what opportunities we can take advantage of and what we are missing that we should be fighting for.

Take Albury and Wodonga on the Hume Highway. Albury sits on the northern side of the Murray River and Wodonga on the south.

Albury and Wodonga, unlike many regional inland centres, are not dependent on agriculture.

Without natural resources like coal or sugar at their disposal, Albury and Wodonga have worked in partnership to attract industry to their cities.

One of the ways they have diversified industry is by creating the NEXUS industrial precinct, a 450-hectare site zoned to support large or heavy industrial development.

Spanning the Hume Freeway and the main Melbourne-Sydney rail corridor, the industrial precinct is ideally placed for transport infrastructure.

Albury mayor Kevin Mack said another example of exciting new industry to the region was Sakura Sky, a cloud company that recently relocated to Wodonga from Singapore.

Their aim was to achieve employee retention. They were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars training Australians to work overseas and would eventually lose their employees to larger companies.

Sakura Sky has found it can attract local graduates from La Trobe and Charles Sturt universities. The company has noticed a spike in employee retention and plans to stay in Wodonga if the business continues to thrive.

"With cities like Sydney, Melbourne and parts of Brisbane becoming less accessible and liveable, we're seeing large businesses reconsider their positions in capital cities," Councillor Mack said.

"They're asking questions like: 'How do we make our employment more attractive?' and 'How do we return productivity to our product in terms of making money for our shareholders?'.

"These businesses are looking towards the regionals for support but the conundrum is what are the state and federal governments doing about their policy settings to make the regions more attractive for these businesses," Cr Mack said.


Future Mackay
Future Mackay Rae Wilson

Often labelled the unofficial capital of North Queensland, Townsville hosts a significant number of governmental, community and major business administrative offices for the northern half of the state.

Townsville has a diverse economy with strengths in education, healthcare, retail, construction and manufacturing. It is a defence hub and is home to thousands of military personnel.

It is also a major manufacturing and processing hub. Townsville is the only city globally to refine three different base metals - zinc, copper and nickel.

This week Townsville announced an exciting business venture between GHD and Douglas Partners engaged through the Imperium3 consortium to build a $2 billion lithium-ion battery plant.

"This is a project that will create thousands of direct and indirect jobs for Townsville and reinvigorate our city's manufacturing industries," Townsville Mayor Cr Jenny Hill said.

The battery plant will manufacture next generation lithium-ion battery cells locally, while targeting rapidly emerging industries such as electric vehicles, home-power storage and industrial-scale uses.

Mackay mayor Greg Williamson is energised about Mackay's future, too. He believes the Future Mackay campaign is the start of an important conversation between the community, local government and our business leaders.

"Mackay is wonderfully placed to be Queensland's city of the future," he said.

"We need to be bold in asserting our position in the Asia-Pacific as a city of influence.


Future Mackay
Future Mackay Rae Wilson

"Taking the focus away from South East Queensland won't be easy. But we have the basic ingredients - a great sea port; more patents than any other regional city in Australia; leadership in resources, agriculture and education; and a wonderful liveable environment."

Mr Salt said the Mackay region had generated about 30,000 net extra jobs in the past 18 years - 12,000 of those jobs were in the mining sector and healthcare had grown by about 4000.

"Australia-wide education was the number one growth sector, while in Mackay education sat as 12th in the data set," he said.

"I think this region is undercooked when it comes to education growth opportunities. Mackay needs to be creating skilled workers with PhDs and certificates that fill the skilled jobs currently empty. There needs to be a greater investment in education in order for Mackay to prosper," he said.