Regional centre creates global economy

In contrast to many other former steel-making centres across the globe, the Hunter region has enthusiastically adapted to a globalised world and created a diverse and dynamic economy that generates plentiful skilled jobs for local workers, significant export income for Australia, and world-leading research into everything from clean energy to respiratory diseases.

If you want an insight into how Australia’s Hunter region developed its powerhouse economy it’s worth contemplating the history of its airport.

For its first four decades, Newcastle Airport was a tin shed adjoining an airstrip chiefly patronised by local residents and their visitors. In 1990 two local councils took over the running of the airport and subsequently invested in four major upgrades, facilitating the wooing of low-cost carriers and the creation of an aerospace development centre for high-tech defence and aviation businesses. Since 2003, passenger numbers have soared from 200,000 to 1.2 million a year. The airport now services Chinese students flying in to study at the Hunter’s acclaimed research institutions, German backpackers on their way to the region’s legendary national parks, and international business travellers coming to town to do deals relating to everything from mining equipment to organic wine.

For most of the 20th century, the Hunter, located a two-hour drive north of Sydney, was a company town. It had wineries and coalmines but it was the BHP Newcastle Steelworks that employed thousands of locals. When the Australian economy was opened up in the 1980s and steelmaking became uneconomic, BHP (now BHP-Billiton) began downsizing. Despite boasting a highly skilled workforce with a co-operative approach to industrial relations, by the early 1990s unemployment in the region was close to 17 per cent and many assumed the Hunter would share the rust belt fate of many a redundant steel town. But, like its airport, the Hunter reinvented itself by building on existing capabilities and acquiring new ones.

In 1799 the Hunter generated Australia’s first export income with a shipment of coal sent to Bengal. Two centuries on, it is home to the world’s biggest coal export port. However, rather than just watching the renminbi roll in, local businesses and research institutions are at the forefront of both greening existing energy sources and searching for economically viable forms of renewable energy. Local electricity generators are developing power stations that run on gas, implementing smartgrid systems and investing heavily in technologies such as post-combustion capture. Both the Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER) and CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle are at the cutting edge of clean energy research. The former is working on projects such as photovoltaic paint capable of turning a house’s roof into an electricity generator, the latter collaborating with Japan’s Mitsubushi Heavy Industries and Spain’s Abengoa Solar to commercialise cutting-edge solar thermal technology.

Viticulture has long been part of the Hunter’s economy. In recent years Hunter shiraz and semillon has been embraced by connoisseurs and local labels such as McGuigan, Wyndham Estate and Tyrrell’s have established global reputations. Other Hunter wineries have cultivated lucrative foreign markets by nimbly adapting to changing tastes by doing everything from implementing organic production methods to producing fashionable varieties such as tempranillo.

The winemaking industry is – along with the region’s pristine beaches, fine dining scene and vibrant arts culture – a major drawcard for tourists. Long a well-kept secret, the Hunter’s many charms have been increasingly recognised. Newcastle was voted one of the world’s top 10 cities in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2011 and plans are afoot to have international flights land at Newcastle Airport and more cruise liners to dock at the Port of Newcastle to make the region more accessible to overseas visitors.

The culture of collaboration and innovation that characterises the Hunter is perhaps most visible in its health sector. The Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) is a partnership between the local health service, the University of Newcastle and the local community. It brings together 1000 health professionals and medical researchers, a number of whom are leaders in their fields. Professor Peter Gibson, for instance, has laid the groundwork for a blood test that can diagnose asthma. HMRI is also involved with the Hunter’s small but burgeoning biotechnology industry.

A plethora of other industries receive less attention but generate significant revenues. The Hunter’s equine industry, having invested in state of the art training facilities, is the second largest thoroughbred nursery in the world. The Hunter’s manufacturing sector, centred on aeronautical, chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical and mining engineering, has thrived by focusing on innovation and pursuing niche market opportunities. Newcastle University, ranked in the top five per cent of world universities, attracts students from 60 different nations. Agribusinesses, ranging from gourmet cheese makers to Asian vegetable growers, sell their wares across the globe. Local shipbuilders construct and maintain vessels for various navies and cruise lines. Film-makers and TV producers are starting to make use of the Hunter’s diverse and cinematic locations. And, having generated some of Australia’s most successful building societies, the region now plays host to branch offices of major financial institutions.

Regional Development Australia (RDA) Hunter, a partnership between three levels of government and the local business community, is working to make the region attractive to Australian and international investors and ensure it remains one of Australia’s largest growth centres. As diverse and dynamic as the region’s economy presently is – its 43,000 businesses generate a gross regional product of $28.4 billion – it’s likely to grow exponentially in the coming years as Australia’s National Broadband Network is rolled out, allowing companies based in Sydney (and elsewhere) to relocate their back office functions or entire operations to the Hunter, where land is plentiful, rents are cheap (and often waived for start-ups), transportation options excellent, and the quality of life impressive.

Kristen Keegan, Hunter Business Chamber CEO notes, “Understated as they are about it, the people of this region have an incredible ability to innovate and change, which is reflected in all the businesses that have started here and gone on to compete internationally. The Hunter attracts the right kind of people – the ones that want to do business.”

View the Hunter Regional Development video here.