The Illawarra has a window of opportunity to make significant changes after years of being overlooked, the new president of a powerful business advisory group has said.
Illawarra Hotel publican Ryan Atchison has been elected president of Business Illawarra's Regional Advisory Council and committed to pushing hard for upgrades to some of the Illawarra's most tired assets.
"Our transport really needs an upgrade," he said, also citing the need to improve the WIN Entertainment Centre.
"The things that are slowing us down are owned by the NSW government."
A week out from the NSW state budget, Mr Aitchison's appointment and willingness to call out the state government's perceived under-investment comes at a critical time.
In addition, the calls are less likely to fall on deaf ears, as the Illawarra's local members of parliament hold some of the top positions in the government hierarchy, after a decade in opposition, both at a state and federal level.
"If we don't go hard now, we'd be guilty of missing a huge opportunity," he said.
Mr Aitchison sits at the head of the 20-member advisory council, which includes business figures from across the Illawarra, Shoalhaven and the Southern Highlands. Business Illawarra executive director Adam Zarth said the membership reflected the diversity of the business community in the region.
"Our newly elected Regional Advisory Council is a reflection of the quality and diversity of the Illawarra's business community, and we are privileged to have our work informed and shaped by such an influential body," he said.
"The next two years will be a time of immense opportunity for the Illawarra and I look forward to continuing our work to drive positive change in the region, and greater job creation and investment, in partnership with the 20 business leaders that comprise our Regional Advisory Council."
Prior to taking on his current role, Mr Aitchison said he had previously not been heavily engaged in business support groups, but the experience of running the Illawarra Hotel as the region emerged from COVID had changed this.
Finding it challenging to encourage change at a local government level on outdoor dining, Mr Aitchison turned to Business Illawarra for support and found a chorus of voices was more effective than his solo.
"It was a common issue among the majority of hospitality venues in Wollongong," he said.
This enabled the city to update its outdoor dining policies to where they are now, with larger areas on footpaths and semi permanent installations in key areas, as well as laneways and streets converted into piazzas.
Mr Aitchison said it was this experience of drawing together multiple small businesses to advocate for change that he would bring to the advisory council.
"A lot of them, it's David versus Goliath battles, and we want to consolidate common issues and turn them into a Goliath versus Goliath battle."
Mr Aitchson nominated areas such as energy and insurance pricing, affordable housing and supporting an expanded defence industry as examples of where a unified voice was more effective than lone actors.
While these challenges were unlikely to be solved in one budget or even a single election cycle, Mr Aitchison said success would come when Wollongong could be seen as a competitive place to do business and somewhere that was attractive for public and private investment.
"I want to look back and go, especially for small and mid-size businesses, people are staying in business longer and more enthused to start businesses because the climate has changed."
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