Bendigo, a regional success story

There is nothing of the frenzy of its gold rush past but for more than a decade, Bendigo has grown quietly into a model regional city that showcases the opportunities for business outside the big metropolises.

This success has created jobs, which, along with an enviable quality of life, has attracted new citizens. Bendigo’s unemployment rate is just below 5 per cent, less than the national average and comparable with Melbourne. The population has grown by just less than 2 per cent for a decade and this growth has fuelled economic growth which in turn has increased the population further, a virtuous circle of regional development.

The co-director of Bendigo-based furniture maker Jimmy Possum, Margot Spalding, cannot speak highly enough of the place. Spalding says there are a number of reasons for the city’s attraction – its proximity to Melbourne, its weather, the quality of its schools and entertainment areas and its thriving arts scene – particularly the Bendigo Art Gallery, jointly funded by the Greater City of Bendigo council and the state government. And, of course, the city is home to Australia’s best-known regional bank. “People all over Australia have a positive view of Bendigo Bank,” she says.

The director of the City of Greater Bendigo, Stan Liacos, says Bendigo Bank’s strong growth over the past 15 years has contributed to the city’s renaissance, fostering a regional finance and professional services industry.

“We are the Zurich of regional Australia,” Liacos says, only half joking. Liacos stresses the diversity of the economy, with a strong food, health, mining and manufacturing presence.

He says significant public sector investment – in water security, public schools, rail services and the Calder Freeway to Mebourne – have nurtured the city’s growth.

Margot Spalding says Jimmy Possum’s regional location is key to its success. A lot of this, she says, is to do with the quality of staff. “They are particularly resourceful and have a great work ethic,” she says.

She thinks the high quality of life in Bendigo has a direct benefit on the business. Greater Bendigo has about 100,000 people – enough to support good schools, health services and entertainment options but not enough to cause traffic problems. Work is at most 15 minutes away for her staff, she says. When people arrive they haven’t endured the misery of a big city commute. “We say here, every traffic jam in Melbourne is good for regional development!”

Real estate is also far more affordable. The average house is about $200,000 cheaper than in Melbourne, which is great for staff as well as business savings.

Steel castings manufacturer Keech Australia relocated from Sydney to Bendigo in 1994 for just that reason. The company – which has annual revenue of $50 million and employs about 165 people – designs and manufactures cast steel products for agricultural, earthmoving, dredging, mining and construction equipment. The key driver for the move was the ever-rising cost of land in Sydney.

“To have a foundry sitting in the middle of Mascot just wasn’t sustainable,” chief executive Herbert Hermens says.

He adds that there are a number of other benefits along with the reduced rent. Bendigo was chosen in part because it had a disused foundry, which Keech has redeveloped. He says the business-friendly nature of the City of Greater Bendigo council was also a significant driver. He sits on the council’s Bendigo Manufacturing Group, which he says is an important forum that allows the city’s business community to work with local government.

Bendigo is fortunate politically. As well as having a well-regarded government at council level, the city sits in state and federal electorates that are competitive to both sides of politics. It does not have the problem of neglect that some regional cities – banished in safe electorates – experience. And the city’s size helps, too. “You get the ear of decision makers a bit easier than if you were in a metropolitan area,” Hermens says.

There are downsides, of course, such as the lack of a rail freight centre and the small airport with its limited routes. It has also been difficult to attract engineers and technical staff because of the mining boom. But Hermens says all this is more than compensated for by the city’s charms and proud community.

“It makes business life easier when you have a happier community around you,” he says.

Article Source: BRW. – Inversting (