18 April 2024

Business Illawarra’s advisory body to ensure growth in the region is done right

| Kellie O'Brien
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Regional Advisory Council president Ryan Aitchison

Regional Advisory Council president Ryan Aitchison is looking to continue growing the region. Photo: Supplied.

Business Illawarra’s Regional Advisory Council (RAC) president Ryan Aitchison wants to ensure Wollongong is set up to grow in the right way, with recent structural changes not expected to inhibit that goal.

Ryan, who is also publican of The Illawarra Hotel, took on the presidency of Business Illawarra’s governance body six months ago.

He said the council was made up of “some of the brightest minds in the region”, steering policy to meet the needs of a growing region and acting as an advisory committee for Business Illawarra’s executive director.

However, last month Business NSW announced a restructure, which meant the departure of Business Illawarra’s executive director Adam Zarth, who was replaced with Central Coast-based Paula Martin.

“Although there has been a restructure, we have been given assurances by the executive of Business NSW that Business Illawarra will remain a fully resourced, metropolitan chapter of the organisation,” he said.

“This includes the incredibly popular and meaningful business awards, which boasts itself as the key business event in the region’s annual calendar.

“It’s time now for us to really recognise what value the organisation provides and look at how we look forward to not just continue doing what we were doing, but how do we find even more ways to grow it?”

He said increasing membership across big and small business, advocacy and a “local voice” were key and his role was to ensure the Illawarra received the support it needed by being that voice.

“I have been known as a ‘squeaky wheel’ from the moment I could speak, and I intend to leverage this character trait to get the best deal for the Illawarra, and on the other side of the coin, making a whole lot of noise if this is ever in jeopardy,” he said.

Ryan said the RAC’s plans would continue to be grounded in the Illawarra, confirming Paula had already proven she was an advocate for the recommendations put forward.

“With very little notice, she’s jumped on all of our current policy items, and upskilled herself incredibly,” he said.

READ ALSO Collaboration must be a priority for Business Illawarra following director’s abrupt departure

“She’s a very smart lady to work with and quite inspiring in a lot of ways so it’s been an interesting process, but it’s also reassuring that the resourcing has been sent our way.

“At this stage, nothing has changed and nothing has been downgraded from what we were previously working on, which is good.”

Ryan said he took on the president role six months ago after legislation changes post-COVID around outdoor dining were rolled out across the state, but there was “frustration in getting Wollongong to follow suit”.

“It was at that point that I reached out to Business Illawarra who immediately started supporting and championing the outdoor dining that we see today,” he said.

“You look at Globe Lane, Crown Lane and even at the front of our pub, and a lot of the bars’ tables and chairs now were all thought about because of the advocacy work and support from Business Illawarra.

“That’s how I saw how it can really work for local businesses.”

He said while initially not well acquainted with the big-ticket policy work through Business Illawarra and Business NSW, he had educated himself on projects such as affordable housing and renewable energy.

“I was looking at how I can support that work, but also find a way of letting that and other advocacy work directly support smaller businesses,” he said.

“Those big-ticket items indirectly support them when it comes to housing, transport and affordable energy, but as far as the day-to-day struggles of small businesses, especially in Wollongong, I felt my role in stepping up to president could really help support those smaller businesses.”

One issue that had become a “passion project” for the past three months was Wollongong’s hotel and visitor economy challenges.

READ ALSO New Tourism Accommodation Strategy aims to boost events and industry growth for Wollongong

“I’ve got a large tourism background and I’m used to 20-30 per cent of revenue in businesses being supplemented by a visitor economy,” he said.

“Whereas no one in Wollongong, outside of people on the Blue Mile and down where the hotels are, have budgeted for any visitor economy because they’ve never really experienced it.

“Wollongong city only has 850-ish hotel rooms, and Wagga for instance, with a populace of 60,000, has about 13-1400.”

He said the comparable centres to Wollongong, being the Central Coast and Geelong, had three times as many hotel rooms, with Wollongong five years behind Geelong.

“We should have started this 10 years ago, but the future is bright,” he said.

“We’ve got a council now that really wants to accelerate and look at creative ways of attracting hotel development to the region, so it’s a very exciting time ahead.”

Ryan said an increase in the visitor economy would have the flow-on effect of increasing trade for CBD businesses, along with a link to affordable housing.

“Wollongong sits in the 82 percentile of Airbnb across the country, which means it is thriving as an Airbnb destination, because there’s no hotels, which means so many long-term rentals are off the market,” he said.

He said it was important to support the NSW Government’s push for change in that space and to look at alternatives to combat the housing crisis.

“We’ve had some big wins when it comes to density, especially around train stations, and key transport hubs, but there’s so much more we need to do on that,” he said.

“We need to make sure we’re set up to grow in the right way, to build density in the right places and not to make any missteps when it comes to the planning piece.”

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