My last column focused on the success of Evocities and the population boost experienced by the seven participating cities as a direct result of the campaign. Way back on 21 July 2006 I sat through a presentation by Gary Wells from Wagga Wagga when the concept of Evocities was first brought to the attention of Dubbo. As the concept was further developed, an important aspect was the criteria that went alongside being classified as an Evocity. This caused angst amongst some locations as they could see the value of Evocities but they may not have met all the criteria. The important criteria was being able to buy a good coffee in the CBD of course but then other components included cultural and entertainment facilities; educational options; a classification as a city and more. The entire concept was to give Sydney residents the positives of a city experience without the negatives of Sydney.
How then can we deliver benefits to the towns that surround the larger regional centres across the State? Dubbo is not unique across the nation in that many large regional centres have smaller towns that surround the regional city and form a symbiotic relationship. The residents of the smaller towns rely on the regional centre for services and a variety of goods and the larger regional centre relies on the smaller towns to inject further dollars into the economy. As a simple demonstration, look at the supermarkets we currently have in Dubbo. Apart from small corner stores, we have three Woolworths; three IGAs; a Coles and an Aldi for a total of eight major supermarkets. The population of Dubbo is 41,934 and I am quite certain that each of those supermarkets would not be viable if it only relied on 5,242 people which would be their proportion of the Dubbo population. All the data we have available supports what we all instinctively know – Dubbo is the shopping capital to 140,000 to 180,000 people from around the region.
Growth in Dubbo is undoubtedly good for Dubbo but growth in the region is also good for Dubbo. Dubbo’s satellite towns use Dubbo for more than just our supermarkets. There are many aspects of our economy that rely on the population of the greater region and other regional centres are the same.
In the dark distant past, we saw population growth in those regional centres come at the expense of the satellite towns. When an analysis was performed on growth rates (positive and negative) in a region, the growth of the regional centre often closely matched the decline in the surrounding smaller towns. The major centre may have won but ultimately the region lost.
Is a marketing campaign similar to Evocities needed for smaller towns? Is Evotowns just waiting to be launched? Evoregions maybe? How about Evobush? Our research tells us that 66 per cent of people would consider leaving Sydney and the two main attractive factors of an Evocity – reasonable house prices and less congestion – are even more attractive in Evotowns.
Before you rush out and register the domain and start pitching the idea, the bad news is that our research would suggest that the conversion factor would be limited. The advertisements that deliver the best results for Evocities are ones that demonstrate a thriving metropolis with cafes and theatres and professionals. Images of the ‘bush’ don’t receive the same response.
The good news is that the small towns don’t need to contribute their dollars to a marketing campaign. Our research further shows that if the major regional centre is growing as a result of people moving from outside the region, the satellite towns also experience growth – albeit at a lower rate. And when you think about it, that makes sense. Some people are attracted by the advertising showing a modern eclectic city and when they look to move they find a charming nearby town that is full of character and charm and they fall in love with it. As much as I personally wouldn’t like to commute twenty minutes to work from a nearby town, for someone coming from Sydney who is accustomed to a one hour commute in bumper to bumper traffic, a twenty minute drive in the countryside is like heaven. Furthermore, satellite towns are better able to attract employees in their community when they can point to the fact that a major regional centre is nearby. For someone from Sydney, there can be a comfort factor in knowing they are within an easy drive of their favourite chain store.
Many years ago Bernard Salt termed the phrase ‘sponge city’ and referred specifically to Dubbo. This was seen as a derogatory term as regional centres soaked up the population from the surrounding regional towns.
I am of the firm belief that the tide has changed. The so-called sponge cities across the nation and now giving back more than is being put in. They are attracting people from outside the area to the city and then, potentially, attracting them to the region. I have a new term for these cities. I call them Exothermic Cities. Just like an exothermic chemical reaction, these cities are now putting out more to their regions than is being put in.
Population growth and sustainability are highly complex issues. There are a myriad of factors determining why people live in certain locations. What we do know is that our State capitals themselves are unsustainable and I would say unliveable and what we have in regional Australia – both in our major cities and our smaller towns – are the solutions that governments are looking for. We just need them to glance in our direction.