MERCURY SAYS: Major WEC revamp could bring millions

MERCURY CAMPAIGN - Main Event

We all knew the day was coming when the Illawarra would need an economic base that didn’t depend on steel and associated manufacturing. But the effects of the change can still be a shock.

Moves to reposition the region around a ‘‘knowledge economy’’ of ITC and financial services are under way. But they are no overnight fix.

And in recent years the decline in Wollongong’s manufacturing base has moved faster than the region’s long-awaited transformation into a more diverse economy.

While the University of Wollongong continues to grow, Wollongong cannot simply shift from being one type of company town (the steelworks) to another (the university). Economic diversity is the key to riding the good times and surviving the tough ones.

• 318 million reasons to say yes to project

• WEC venue could draw 80 extra events

The Illawarra’s beauty is its greatest asset. Tourism, already a major industry in the Illawarra, is crying out to play an even greater role in the region’s economic future.

When a visitor spends $300 or $1000 in the Illawarra, it isn’t only hotels, restaurants and tourism operators who benefit.

Retailers and service providers benefit directly too, and the indirect benefits, through increased employment, extend even further.

Obviously, then, projects that significantly increase the Illawarra’s ability to attract, accommodate and entertain tourists are vital.

And the proposed upgrade of WIN Entertainment Centre into a fully functional entertainment and  convention centre is perfect for the job.

It would inject a torrent of high-spending business and professional visitors right into the heart of Wollongong.

Venues NSW knows the WEC is in need of an upgrade so it can be modernised and remain the major asset for the city.

With the Sydney Convention Centre offline for three years from December, there is a small window open that Wollongong can jump through.

But we need to move swiftly, decisively - and together.

There have been proposals to build a stand-alone convention centre in the heart of Wollongong.

But with a cost estimated at upwards of $100 million, a stand-alone centre would be more difficult to achieve than modifying the WEC, requiring significantly more money and time to develop.

The government has dismissed the WEC proposal on the grounds that it doesn’t meet the funding criteria. That, frankly, is nonsense.

The government needs to remember that the money for the Restart NSW Illawarra Infrastructure Fund — all $100million of it — was raised because it chose to lease one of this region’s key public assets, the port of Port Kembla, to private enterprise.

At the time, NSW Treasurer Mike Baird promised that money would be spent in this region on projects that would directly benefit us.

He also promised that this region would have a say in how that money was spent.

If any project can truly claim to help transform a city’s economic future, the convention centre project can.

Yet the project was rejected.

Not because it wouldn’t deliver the benefits it promises but because it didn’t “meet the criteria”.

Criteria laid down, it needs to be said, not by the people of this region, but by the state government’s bureaucrats in Sydney.

So now we say to the bureaucrats: if your criteria can exclude a project such as this, then your criteria are wrong and need to be revised – now.

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