South Shellharbour Beach was a quiet backwater, known for its good surfing breaks, when the idea to build a boat harbour was first suggested in the early 1980s.
It was a grand vision for the site, which included a saltmarsh and old council tip.
Yet, it was a time of economic downturn and Shellharbour City Council figured that building a boat harbour to generate jobs and create a tourist industry, funded by land sales around the proposed site, would help advance the city, which was hit by hard times.
The concept of Shell Cove, the largest coastal tourist-residential development initiated by a local government authority in Australia, was born.
The $1.5 billion Shell Cove project is a joint venture between Shellharbour City Council and private development company Australand.
The first land lots went on sale in 1997.
In January this year, after more than 25 years of debate and delay, including a few slow years after the global financial crisis, construction on the marina and boat harbour project, known as The Waterfront, began.
Albion Park firm Coastwide Civil is transforming the Shell Cove landscape as part of the $150 million first stage of The Waterfront works, due to be completed soon.
The overall boat harbour project involves turning the land into a 20-hectare water body with 300 wet berths and a platform for associated harbourside development and facilities.
Its construction includes a main breakwater, groyne (small breakwater), entrance channel, excavation in an acid sulphate soil environment, old tip waste removal, revetment edge treatments, boardwalks and marina berthing facilities.
The start of that crucial long-awaited project was a boon to the local economy and community, Shellharbour Mayor Marianne Saliba said.
"To be able to turn the sod at the beginning of the year made it real to our community," Cr Saliba said.
"For many years, it's been talked about, but the work on the marina has finally begun and we expect to be finished in 2018, which is sooner than the scheduled completion time."
She said The Waterfront project had provided construction jobs and once completed it would kick-start the development of a new commercial centre alongside.
"The whole purpose of the marina was to provide employment opportunities, particularly for the people of Shellharbour, who were the most affected by the downturn in the steel industry," Cr Saliba said.
"We believe at council that's exactly what it is doing, not only in its construction, but also what it will lead to in commercial, retail, tourism and hospitality opportunities down at the marina foreshore."
A recent council report revealed that 90 per cent of jobs relating to the Shell Cove project over the three months to October this year, went to Illawarra residents.
Cr Saliba said the construction of the boat harbour and marina was more than the linchpin of the overall development, it was key to the region's profile.
"I see Shellharbour City becoming the centre of the Illawarra because of the fact we will have the marina, we will have employment opportunities that will be created through that, and it's going to be a significant tourist attraction," she said.
"It will be almost 30 per cent larger than Darling Harbour, so it's a very large piece of infrastructure.
"It's also one of the largest, if not the largest, project that local government has undertaken with a private developer."
Cr Saliba said there would be 3000 dwellings by the end of the project, and a school, community centre, golf course, shops, playing fields and wetlands, resulting in a $3.71 billion economic impact over 20 years from 2007.
Cr Saliba's comments follow remarks from Australand NSW residential division general manager Nigel Edgar that demand for Shell Cove land lots would increase as construction progresses on The Waterfront.
Mr Edgar said buyers continued to recognise the value of the development as it reached a landmark stage.
"We have now sold over half of the land lots available at Shell Cove with two land releases this year recording an outstanding 100 per cent sell-out on the first day," Mr Edgar said.
"As Shell Cove develops and thrives, buyers will benefit from the positive roll-on effect, which is seeing land lots appreciate in price, clearly supporting the case for investment in the area."
Mr Edgar said buying land and building a home at Shell Cove were proving to be a sound long-term investment with strong capital growth already achieved, and forecast to strengthen as the development entered its final phase.
The average price for a land lot in 1997 was $86,828. The average price this year has jumped to $311,791. More than 1650 land lots have sold to date.
"We continue to see interest from a variety of buyer demographics, including couples, young families, investors and retirees," Mr Edgar said.
"As construction progresses on The Waterfront, Shell Cove, we expect demand for land lots will increase, with many buyers wanting to live close to the future boat harbour."
Glenn Colquhoun, Australand development director, has been working on the Shell Cove project, a master planned community, for the past 14 years.
"When I first started in this role, the project had been going for two or three years and it was a small developing community that had a great master plan in place.
"The project has just continually burgeoned and there has been a number of exciting phases of the development and there has been a lot of work that has gone into the planning of the boat harbour and making sure we've got it right from both a building and an environmental perspective," Mr Colquhoun said.
"Because of the boat harbour and The Waterfront precinct, the way Shell Cove works is quite different to a normal housing subdivision because, not only is it a residential development, it will also be a tourism destination, so there is a lot more planning in terms of supporting that tourism," he said.
The first stage of works on the harbour is nearing completion.
Stage two, due to start early next year, is the largest stage of the boat harbour construction and involves the excavation of the larger eastern harbour basin, treatment of acid sulphate soils and the formation of the harbour edge with vertical concrete walls and rock revetment.
The final stage will involve constructing the breakwater and the groyne in the ocean and dredging of the entry channel to the harbour. At this time, the public boat ramp with jetty will also be built.
Mr Colquhoun said the full boat harbour construction was a five-year contract with a forecast completion date at the end of 2018. Marina berths will be progressively delivered after 2018 on a market demand basis.
He said work was under way on the initial stages of a master plan for the town centre including its retail components.
"We have appointed two architectural firms and the intent is to evolve the master plan and then the first stage, that detailed design and documentation on the first stage of the retail component, with a development application to be lodged in the first half of 2014.
"The early stage of the town centre is expected to be completed by early 2016.
"We've also lodged a DA for the first residential stages of the boat harbour precinct with the intent to be selling our land and medium density housing in that first stage in 2015."
Mr Colquhoun said the boat harbour precinct included a mix of housing.
"The higher value land is around the harbour foreshore and that won't become available until the boat harbour construction is completed.
"That mix includes small land lots, medium density terraces, apartments and high-value land lots on the harbour and beach foreshores.
"The layout also includes facilities associated with the marina, including a two-lane public boat ramp that is being delivered, and hard-stand and haul-out for maintenance of vessels," Mr Colquhoun said.
The Waterfront precinct will be the last land release for Shell Cove.
There have been vocal critics of the Shell Cove marina project since it was first proposed in the 1980s.
Much of the criticism has centred on the scale of the marina (initially proposed at 750 berths) and environmental concerns including the loss of a significant portion of South Shellharbour Beach and the destruction of the saltmarsh.
However, Mr Colquhoun said some measures had been adopted as part of the development of the boat harbour to produce environmental improvements. These included the remediation of the former council tip with waste material extracted from the site and the construction of the compensatory wetland at Myimbarr.
The wetland system provides 12.4 hectares of freshwater wetland and saltmarsh.
Mr Colquhoun said other environmental initiatives included introducing management strategies for the treatment of acid sulphate soils in the low-lying estuarine environment.
A water-quality management plan, which included the rehabilitation of more than 1.5 kilometres of existing watercourses, had also been implemented, as well as the construction of a series of bio-infiltration swales to cleanse stormwater generated from new houses to pre-development water quality standards.
More than 15 hectares of remnant bush parcels and watercourses, providing habitat for fauna, had been regenerated and rehabilitated, Mr Colquhoun said,
He said the Shell Cove project was unique in NSW, with not too many projects like it in Australia.
"There's very few examples in Australia in which there's a modern boat harbour constructed with a residential environment with a town centre and the amenities that we have built."