I grew up on Koloona Avenue, Mt Keira.
Porters Farm was my backyard long before a house was anywhere to be seen, there is no prouder old boy of Edmund Rice College, and Dad worked at Kemira Colliery for many of my school years.
Mt Keira has been a massive part of my life and I'm proud of it. I understand that others love it for their own reasons and I respect that.
I was shocked when I came home eight years ago at the state of what should be our jewel in the crown.
Mt Keira Summit Park had a dilapidated kiosk without any power or water, the signage welcoming our community and visitors alike was (and still is) covered in graffiti, not to mention riddled with bullet holes, and to top it off Mt Keira Road was closed due to a rock fall.
Hardly a jewel in the crown; rather a regional disgrace.
The work Council and State Government have done to improve the amenity of Mt Keira and provide basic services like road access and power should be commended, as should the care they've taken in engaging with the community on the future of the site and broader Illawarra Escarpment.
The first place we take anyone when we're introducing them to the region is Mt Keira, because it doesn't matter what they're here to see, you can show them from the lookout at Summit Park.
Gavin Smith, Senior Vice President of Royal Caribbean and one of the most influential tourism executives in the world, was blown away, saying you wouldn't find anything better anywhere in the world . . . and that was after he drove past the bullet-riddled signs and couldn't get a cup of coffee.
It is no surprise that 60 million Australians visited NSW national parks in 2018, compared to 51.77 million in 2016, because our national parks and natural assets are outstanding.
Five years ago, Destination Wollongong started talking about Mt Keira as being a mountain of possibilities, and it is.
Our view was that the Illawarra Escarpment was there for us all to enjoy. We wanted to create an experience where the whole family, from grandparents to young children, all had something to do. It was never our intention to build Disneyland. It was never our intention to decimate the vegetation.
Our only intention was to celebrate our magnificent natural asset and make it available to as much of the community as possible.
It was fantastic to hear the Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean earlier this week say NSW national parks "are the ticket for tourism in our own backyard".
It is no surprise that 60 million Australians visited NSW national parks in 2018, compared to 51.77 million in 2016, because out national parks and natural assets are outstanding.
It was also fantastic to see a commitment to further investment to make them even better.
The challenge with national parks, like all areas of high visitation, is effective planning and on-going management to ensure a richer visitor experience, but also that the surrounding environment is preserved and enhanced, not adversely affected by a rise in visitor numbers.
Done well, this works and is beneficial to all user groups. Overall, New Zealand seems to have struck a wonderful balance between protecting its beautiful natural assets, respecting the deep cultural heritage associated with the land, activating leisure and tourism initiatives for a broad range of users, and establishing partnerships for on-going management and maintenance.
A significant amount of work has gone into the development of the Illawarra Escarpment Mountain Bike Strategy and the Plan of Management for Mt Keira Summit Park, which has been managed by Council and National Parks and Wildlife. Destination Wollongong has been a willing contributor as part of this process and we'll continue to engage in rational discussion - and cite regions and countries that have successfully married ecological sustainability with exciting tourism product. It happens all around the world; wouldn't it be good to think Wollongong has the maturity and foresight to finally have figured it out?
This process can protect areas of high ecological and cultural value and develop a sustainable trail network for the benefit of all user groups on the escarpment. Walkers can walk, bird watchers can watch birds, and bike riders can ride their bikes.
User groups can co-exist, enjoy our mountain the way they wish and ensure our escarpment receives the investment, infrastructure, recognition and respect it truly deserves.
Mark Sleigh is general manager of Destination Wollongong