FROM BROOMSTICKS TO BEEF AND BURGEONING BUSINESS
Published on 16 July 2020
There is no doubt Rockhampton is a progressive city that is being reshaped. Tell us a little bit about the history of Rocky?
Rockhampton's history is incredibly rich, and if you really want to delve into the history there are bits in there you could not make up if you tried.
Rockhampton has the most extraordinary story of its founding and its early days, but there are some themes through there that I think inform who we are even now.
If you go back to the very earliest days of our city and settlement, it was very much around looking for new sheep. Believe it or not it was going to be sheep, not beef. We could have been the sheep capital of Australia instead of the beef capital of Australia.
But as many great stories begin, clearly there was a strong culture already here, the Darumbal people and I acknowledge their partnership as we go through building this community and continuing to build the community.
When the Archer family arrived, they were a very enterprising family. When you look at things the Archers did, spreading out from Norway to all parts of the globe, they really set up new worlds, they drove an empire and were definitely a go-getter family.
I love to think about what must have been involved, what dinnertime conversations at the family home would look like as the children scattered from one end of the world to the other in a time when it wasn't easy to make connections.
As the early Rockhampton settlement started to grow it was very innovative and fiercely determined to stake a place. The newspaper was set up here and it was a key part in growing a settlement that was determined to be bigger and better and all those things. I believe it was 1876 when Anthony Trollope came to Rockhampton.
Anthony Trollope was a journalist and a commentator. And he was probably as close to Madonna or whatever his generation had; someone that really attracted the groupies.
He commented about Rockhampton being a city of sin, sweat and sorrow, which we try to live down. But he also said, "Rockhampton thinks a good deal of itself."
I think that early hunger for growth and innovation … Rockhampton took no prisoners.
We really thought we had it great, and we do. I think that we have got every right to be proud of the community that we have grown and the natural setting that we are in.
Right up until the Second World War, Rockhampton had its own jelly crystal factory, its own cordial, its own soft drink and its own beer, which they tell me wasn't the tastiest brew, but locals drank it because it was local.
We made our brooms, we made our own mattresses and we had fashion that was locally produced.
When the rest of the world was starting to change and be more about looking outward to sell your wares, I think Rockhampton was a bit slow at that.
There are early stories of us stopping the railway from coming into Rockhampton from the south. We would let it go to the west and we let it come down from the north, but we wouldn't let that connection to Gladstone because all of the produce from north and west had to go over our walls and that made us wealthy.
But of course, the world changed. It has been this constant story of a city that is very innovative and forward looking and go-getter, and then hanging onto that for a little bit too long.
I think traditionally we are known as neither boom nor bust; Rockhampton was just very steady. But somewhere in the middle of that, others that were hungrier jumped ahead a little.
There has been a real need to take stock of ourselves and to look out at the world a lot more than we had traditionally done. That is very much the moment that we are in now, reinventing ourselves, remembering our roots as go-getters, as innovators, as determined to succeed, because we've got this great setting, and we’re not just resting on our laurels.
Whenever people visit, they always comment how much Rockhampton has really changed. What prompted this change, and what do you think are the key elements that contributed to these new improvements?
I think the big shaking-up moment for us was de-amalgamation. There were forced amalgamations where four shires came together including Rockhampton, and then this changed with Yeppoon Beach being separated.
What that meant for us was financially as a council we were headed for dire straits. But also, as a community, it left us going, "Well, what do we do to ensure our future?".
It was very much about a moment when we had to rethink and refocus ourselves because as much as we share a lot with Mareeba's similar history and our extraordinary buildings, we needed to know that we had a future that was about us.
The reshaping of Rockhampton came out because of that shock to our system, to our ego and to our self-awareness. We came through the de-amalgamation and looked at the pieces that we have, and we just decided that we had to go for broke.
What are the strengths that Rockhampton has got? What do we need to do to reinvent ourselves? And then we really pushed to put as many eggs in one basket as we could to reshape ourselves.
That meant we had to let go of some things that had been special to us for a long time. Council reduced its spending in some of our services to allow us to invest new money and take the community in a different direction.
The things that were really a part of what we saw in that, the physical things are the redevelopment of Quay Street and the Riverbank area there, which is a critical, beautiful setting, that had been so undervalued.
When we were doing that, we made a few commitments to ourselves and to the community. One was that we deserved to have the best. It was not a redevelopment on the cheap, it was a redevelopment that captured imagination.
We knew that if smarts were the way of the future and technology wasn’t going to go away, then we need to take a leap and jump in front, because we were behind the eight ball.
We installed fibre, we installed a network that we own and control the data for, right through our CBD.
We also installed things like gas pipes that would allow all those beautiful buildings to become restaurants, if they chose to. We have tried to reshape our physical setting to suit what we know is the strong future for the community.
Are there any plans to make the fibre available to businesses?
There are. We have had a couple of models that are trying to work that. Our challenge as a government of course, is how we would do that as there are a whole lot of rules around telcos. We had done a bit of work towards becoming a private telco, where council would make our fibre available, but we were not able to make a business case work. So, we are still very open to that. It is just that the mechanism, given the amount of legislation that sits around telcos and who can and cannot do it. Because we know we ended up with what I always call the dodgy NBN. We have got the fibre to the node, not fibre to the premises, particularly in our CBD.
It's one of the constant themes when I'm talking to other levels of government. You can't go back and retrofit all of our community, which I can understand, but let's get our CBD technology up onto a standard that our people and businesses need because they should have the very best.
I know at the SmartHub we have made sure there is some good connectivity there, but it should be much wider.
What other elements do you think are key for Rockhampton?
We were losing our young people, and I guess most regional cities have always seen that, your young people go away. They used to come back when it was time to raise their family. But it reached a stage where the jobs that they wanted or had acquired elsewhere were just not available in Rockhampton.
The internet was not as fast. They stayed away and eventually our grandmas and granddads went down to join them. That is the moment that we are in now, so that is why we had to start with the circuit breaker.
Things like redevelopment of Kershaw Gardens is really a part of that story as well. Once again, if we are going to build a park, let us make it the best. We went and had a look while on holidays at Seventeen Mile Rocks in Brisbane and I came back and said, "I want one better than that."
We can argue whether it is or not because it is obviously not quite the same scale. But if we are going to do it, we are going to do it well, and we are not going to be afraid to take risks.
If you look at things like Wyatt's Wonder Web in the middle of Kershaw Gardens, which is a $1 million climbing frame originally designed for Central Park in New York. We worked on the design a little bit more to add the slings and a few bits and pieces, however it is a climbing frame for a couple of hundred kids.
It is that kind of beacon that suggests we are not taking second best. Our kids deserve an amazing space and our families need to have great places to go to. It is about building family spaces because we have not had much investment in that. It is about the technology which we have mentioned, and it has also been about events.
If you are in a southern capital city, there is a natural dynamic that makes big events commercially viable.
That is not as easy in a regional city, but we have just decided to fit that into the marketing budget. We have a couple of significant events, such as the River Festival, where a substantial investment from the Council has been made to host an event that could be anywhere and would be welcomed and gasped in awe, if it was in Brisbane, or Sydney, or Melbourne.
It is a really high standard of creativity and it is a beautiful weekend. The intention is always to be out there, to be risky, and we make decisions that would normally be a little difficult for a government to make about what we're prepared to do with our event program, because we know how important it is.
I guess a lot of the elected council, myself included, I have been here for 100 years and an understanding that the noisy people aren't necessarily speaking for the rest.
That first night of the very first River Festival, which I think was six or seven years ago now, it rained, and Rockhampton would not go home.
People were walking around in the pouring rain dripping wet and they wouldn't go home, and they were saying, "I can't believe this is Rockhampton. This is so beautiful." And on the Sunday afternoon, the River Festival was supposed to finish at 2:00, and the young lady who was the brains behind a lot of it, Sarah Reeves, rang me and she said, "Mayor, what do I do? We're trying to get these decorations down in the lanes, and the people are blocking us."
Rockhampton in an act of civil disobedience would not allow council staff to go in and dismantle this thing they had loved so much. They had a beatbox going, they were dancing, and they were actively blocking council, which was just lovely.
Across Queensland, there are only a couple of councils that own co-working spaces that contribute to the innovation ecosystem. It is visionary, bold and confident of the Rockhampton Regional Council to have a SmartHub.
I guess that is borne out of us just not being prepared to wait any longer. We launched applications for a couple of years, then in the end I just went, "We're just doing it." Because there was a movement starting, and we need to be ahead of that.
Can I say that that willingness to take risk is credited to the whole council because it is not as easy as you might think for councillors to do, because we do get criticised for taking these risks.
One such risk was when I asked the staff to come back to me with the wording that would let us say, "Anyone who needs to use a footpath to do their business, just do it and we'll sort out all the details next year. So, if you want to put tables and chairs on the footpath or stock out on the footpaths, so you can respond to COVID, just go do it, no rules, no application."
What came back from the officers who are very aware of all the legal implications and the insurance implications was, "Well, look, we will let people have no fee, but they still got to apply."
I went, "No, no, no, no, no. I just want them to be able to do what they've got to do." In 12 months’ time, we will say, "Now it's time to formalise it and if you want to keep that, we’ll need to put it in a map."
That is scary situation for our officers and council now because of the risk of someone doing the wrong thing. This is a level of risk that normally at government level you are trying to prevent as much as you can. But what it is done is it is meant that our community and our businesses can just try it and see, they can play around with pieces and they have got a year to do that.
How do you see our future?
I have got multiple answers to that. I would hope that we are a city. I see that there is a place for a regional city, which is very switched on and connected and vibrant and fresh and innovative but is not in that clunky southeast corner.
I know there is a lot of advantages to being where the people are, but there is a lot of advantages to being in a more relaxed, friendly family and a more accepting community as well.
In a regional city it is certainly more affordable. The stats that have being done about regional communities, show that we come out well for the ability to pay off a home. You can buy a four-bed, two-bath, low-set brick here for $350,000 in one of our better suburbs.
This is a place where you can make a home and grow a business. It is very much about those future businesses. We need to add to our suite of things that we are known for such as the beef capital of Australia, proudly servicing the mining industry and being a service centre for the Central Queensland, Central West area.
We also need to be in these new generation industries as well. I am keen to see more locally grown small crops that are consumed locally. This is encouraging people to do their business and grow their business here, not feel that they have got to go down to the southeast corner.
Through programs like the Turbo-Traction Lab, we are actually bringing the best support, the best advice here to Rockhampton for our people and for others who visit us, to get that support and grow their businesses. Everything that started Rockhampton, began with someone being enterprising, entrepreneurial, and hungry. We need a generation to have the support they need to do that again.
Rocky offers great connectivity through the internet and our airport, plus an affordable, liveable city and a wonderful space to have a young family. Then you can grow a business and access the best of the best minds right here in Rockhampton, which is phenomenal. That is the best of all the worlds in my mind. Also, if you do want to have a city break, it is only an hour away. We truly have it all, which is fantastic.
You touched on the SmartHub and its success in incubating several start-up businesses. Some of these have been in technology, service-based businesses and small businesses. Tell us about your broad thoughts on the SmartHub and the role that you see us playing into the future?
We have Customs House which is kind of like the baby sister to the Customs House in Brisbane. It is very similar in design, however a little bit smaller, and that's where the SmartHub is. It is in the middle of our most beautiful street fronting the river and it is a hive of activity.
The location of the SmartHub was deliberate. Customs House has always been the centre of business here in Rockhampton, and it was deliberate to ensure it became the innovation start-up and technology hub. We were sending out a signal that this is the future. We also wanted the hub to have permeable walls and to leak out into our business community and give people confidence and ideas going forward.
The things that you have been doing in the SmartHub with the Lunch and Learns, and other initiatives are really important in getting that broader message out.
It was scary to start. Again, I have got to thank the councillors of the day. We adopted a smart strategy about getting all the technology and we have got everything that a smart city would normally have.
Others that have done a lot of media have only got a fraction of what we have here at the SmartHub, and that is all part of the Rocky story. We make our own brooms, we make our own jelly and we do not interact much with anybody else. We have got to break out of that. We have got to tell people the success that we have had.
The hub is a symbol, but it is also a practical way of providing support. One hundred years ago, all the rivers led into Rocky. The road, the rail, the telephone wires, all came to Rockhampton. It is just not like that anymore. We have got to build back those links as service providers through the internet, and that has been an important part of what the hub is doing.
I think its impact is quite wide. People are now starting to talk about innovation in new ways since the hub started. Our school kids are much more switched on to this future that they are not necessarily going to work for someone else, they are going to work for themselves. They are all going to be millionaires by the time they are 20 years old.
If they do not have that ambition, they will never start that journey. I am really proud of the change in Rockhampton over the last few years.
Are there any plans to successfully grow our relationship with our sister city, now that international travel is so difficult?
We have a sister city in Japan, a sister city in China, and we have a friendship city in China. The challenge is always about what do those things mean?
We have a 28 year old relationship with our sister city in Japan, and it was very much built around tourism to our neighbouring shire. While Rockhampton has the benefit of enjoying the coast, it is not actually in our shire and that creates an interesting relationship that has a lot of history.
Obviously, things are difficult now in relation to our Chinese sister city, Zhenjiang. Zhenjiang are very interested in our beef and about learning from our technology. I have corresponded and checked, and we have exchanged letters asking how each other is going and hoping their communities are well and safe.
We sent one of our local artists over to China for an internship and he really flourished while he was over there. I think there will be a lot more of that. It is important for us to keep those relationships alive, despite whatever else is going on, on a global or nation-to-nation scale.
What are your thoughts around the economic drivers that will ensure that Rockhampton remains economically prosperous in the future?
We have always prided ourselves on our diversity, but we had a limited number of things. We were a major government service centre, and that has been eroded.
Now we have often a slightly lower pay grade and less people. This has been a part of this recognition that we needed to change. I believe that our future is still in that diversity. I think agriculture is a big part of it and I am very much supportive of Rookwood Weir.
We want to do that in a smart way, so we are also partnering with universities around ways of delivering agriculture that has less impact on the great barrier reef for argument's sake. I mean, we will continue to support mining, but we know that if you are looking 20 and 40 years down the track, then you need to have a number of things in your suite.
We have done a lot of work in supporting agriculture in the area. We think our abundant water supply, and for those who do not know at Rockhampton has just never had sprinklers limitations or any those. We have water meters because we are required to have them, but we actually have a really robust water supply which needs to be used in a smart way.
Agriculture is a clever technology that allows a lot of people to be fed out of a relatively small input. We think that an expansion of our offerings for food, so it is not just beef, but other things as well.
Barramundi is a Darumbal word. Between the two bridges is the best fishing spot. We quite literally sit in our offices and look out and watch people landing barramundi that are a metre long.
I think we are still a fairly generalist economy and I think that is a wise thing. Our greatest strengths are our connectivity. Council owns the airport and it has a very substantial runway because of the number of things that are transported through our airport.
We own all of those assets and we're certainly open to opportunity. In the budget Rockhampton Council has put aside money to invest in land for growth and some of that will be industrial land, so that we can do deals.
If someone is wanting to go into manufacturing, making use of our power station that is on our turf, the water and the land, we're keen to take those new directions as well.
What can we do as citizens and residents to help make Rockhampton an even better place to live, both from a community perspective, but also from an economic perspective?
Council has been pouring money into events and into supporting things that other government levels would not. I am immensely proud that we have had a local entrepreneur who has opened a private art gallery for instance. We need more of that.
We have had some good sponsorship into the SmartHub and we need more of that.
We need people to offer to do things at the hub, and we also want to see more events and more community groups step up.
It can be quite tiring for those members of the community who are shouldering the load and running a big event, they need other people to step up beside them.
We have got some amazing people, but the more of us that shoulder the load, the more that gets done. I absolutely encourage people to step forward. We are taking a lot of risks ourselves as a council, and we can provide some kind of shelter for people to step out and continue to take risks.
If you are passionate about something and you see something that can make Rocky even better, put your hand up and just do something with it or about it.
Mayor Margaret Strelow is the Mayor of Rockhampton Regional Council and holds the portfolio for Advance Rockhampton - Economic Development and Events.
The SmartHub encourages entrepreneurs and business owners to adopt technology and modern based business practice to make the entire business journey more profitable, more enjoyable, more effective and more efficient.
Being part of the SmartHub gives local business owners opportunities to meet with and learn from mentors, to help them learn the discipline required to succeed in business.
The SmartHub is currently offering free membership now (usually $50 a month or more depending on level of membership). If you would like to learn more about becoming part of the SmartHub, contact us via the following channels:
Phone: 07 4936 8444