Nestled around Emu Bay on the Bass Strait, Burnie is a port town on the northwest coast of Tasmania. Being a robust, regional community is one of many things that make Burnie unique. Another thing, according to Mayor Steve Kons, is the attitude of the residents. “There’s never a sit back, ‘doom and gloom’ focus on what’s happening in other parts of the world,” he says. “That’s one of the progressive things I like about Burnie.”
Over the last 20 years, Burnie has changed considerably – from what was once considered an industrial wasteland and one of the dirtiest cities in the country, to a town full of potential growth and opportunities for education, trade and industry.
The modern day Burnie, full of booming industry, is a far cry from the 1930s-era town where they were immersed in a “social experiment” with the paper mill being the only industry in town. “It lasted about 70 years. They were trying to employ the whole town in one business,” Mayor Kons says. “For a long period of time, that’s the way it was – a reliance on one industry. But we’ve had a lot of industries pop up in the meantime.”
When it comes to tourism, one of those emerging industries, Mayor Kons says there are two types of people – travellers and corporates. Burnie mainly focuses on the corporate market and their “corporate stays,” he says. “The tourism market is one of the areas we would like to break into as the icing on the cake. At the moment we’re a feeder town for other places across the north and northwest coast.”
Historically, Burnie has not devoted much infrastructure or funds to tourist accommodation, but Mayor Kon’s IKON Hotel has been the exception, spending a fair amount of money on development. As a result of the upgrades, the hotel now attracts a number of established companies to Burnie that have shied away from the town previously, Mayor Kons says.
“About 90 to 95 per cent of people have been coming to our place and it’s only been open for the last four or five months,” he says. “People are used to coming here to do their business and then leaving. If they do decide to come and spend the night here, it’s because of the quality and they’re prepared to pay for it.”
For those taking up residency, Burnie is a safe and an ideal town to live in because they’re a place “not too far from anywhere,” Mayor Kons says. “You can come and live here, but you can work in Melbourne and fly over and come back.”
Burnie is also a great place to own or run a business. One of the major businesses in Burnie is Lion – a beverage and food company that produces and markets a wide-range of beer, wine, cheese, and spirits. They’re currently spending $120 million to upgrade their factory after closing a number of others in the mainland. “We’re going to be doubling the cheese production to 25,000 tonnes, which will make it one of the largest factories in Australia specializing in soft cheeses,” he says.
Another company doing particularly well is Caterpillar, who at one point were exporting 10 per cent of the world’s mining equipment – and 70 per cent of Australia’s – out of Burnie. “There are opportunities for our regional industry here to facilitate that,” Mayor Kons says. “If we could do it for them here, we should be able to do it around the world.”
Development in Burnie emphasizes a focus on industrial growth – particularly specialised manufacturing. This is one area Mayor Kons sees as having a lot of potential. “A small region like Burnie capitalizes on the fact the world is basically our oyster and we can export easily,” he says. “It’s not an issue for our people and they keep on producing and moving forward.”
Burnie’s university is another development they are concentrating on, as they have had a lot of uptake in the recent past. Between 2006 and 2011, there has been a 42 per cent increase in Burnie residents attending – which is a significant jump, Mayor Kons says.
The university is projecting to increase the number of students from 1,000 to 3,000 by 2018. By 2030, the campus is looking at 6,000 enrolled students. “The fact now is if we can increase our educational opportunities within the immediate area, which we’re doing, we see lots of benefits,” he says.
Like all cities, Burnie is posed with challenges, but Mayor Kons sees their potential problems as opportunities. While they still struggle as a disadvantaged community, the opportunities are there now – including areas of education and manufacturing. “It’s just a matter of how quickly they can roll those out,” Mayor Kons says. “I hear arguments all over the country about how the glass is half full or half empty, but the way we view it here is the glass is always full.”
While sustainability isn’t practised by all, the more the town educates residents, the more participation will increase. In the past, Mayor Kons explains, companies wouldn’t pay much attention to environmental concerns. “But now there is opportunities, market shares and financial and social benefits in pursing better lifestyles,” he says. “The more educated your community becomes, the more you’re appreciative of the environment. It’s a matter of working together.”
As for where Burnie is headed in the long-term, Mayor Kons wants to see the town maintain the “roll we’re currently on.” They’ve got major industries on the northwest coast looking to expand operations beyond their region, possibly overseas. “We are a small community, so you have to improvise and be flexible with everything you do,” he says.
And that’s precisely who they are – a flexible and growing community that is constantly on the move.
“You have to tackle all the challenges because that’s the situation. Our challenge is getting product and produce out of Burnie to the rest of the world.”