Building a reputation: Geraldton mayor bullish on city’s prospects

Michael RobertsGeraldton Guardian
Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn,  with dog Bella, says the city is well placed for a bright future.
Camera IconGeraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn, with dog Bella, says the city is well placed for a bright future. Credit: Michael Roberts/Geraldton Guardian

“We’ve gone from planning for disaster to swimming in success.”

That’s how Mayor Shane Van Styn summed up 2021 from a City of Greater Geraldton point of view.

There were plenty of unknowns heading into the New Year, but Mr Van Styn said Geraldton passed almost every challenge with flying colours.

While Perth, Peel and the South West were hit by lockdowns and mask mandates, Geraldton has lived with the freedoms few other cities around the world have enjoyed.

Business is going gangbusters, according to Mr Van Styn.

“Coming out of the back of COVID and understanding what the reopening would look like, it has turned out to be as busy if not busier than it has ever been,” he said.

“When you look around the nation with businesses closing everywhere, Geraldton largely reopened and grew because of COVID in many ways.

“In the back end we’ve seen new businesses come online — which is quite a remarkable feat.”

Staring down the barrel of a predicted $6 million deficit, the City finished the 2020-21 financial year just over $870,000 in the red.

“We’ve got an economy that’s booming,” Mr Van Styn said.

“There aren’t many places in the world that can say that. It’s a great achievement.”

While Geraldton has benefited from international and interstate travel restrictions, that could all change in 2022 when WA’s hard border comes down in February.

What will it mean for the port city? Mr Van Styn expects city dwellers to continue relocating to Geraldton for a taste of country life.

“What will be interesting to see is how many people rack off,” he said.

“What’s the population going to look like?

“Businesses will be able to access staff for the first time in a while. Staff shortages do play a chronic problem in being able to deliver services here in Geraldton.”

One of Geraldton’s greatest challenges, according to Mr Van Styn, is building its reputation as a tourism destination and capitalising on the recent influx of visitors.

“We certainly didn’t plan COVID to bring the people in but we got the timing right,” he said.

“We had all the infrastructure ready for when they came.

“The best thing you can get from a marketing and tourism growth is word of mouth — people heading back to Perth and telling their friends that they had a great time.”

Slamming social media for the way it depicts crime in Geraldton, Mr Van Styn said local residents were some of the city’s harshest critics.

“We still have our bad happenings, but it’s certainly no more prevalent than surrounding regional centres or Perth,” he said.

“There are still going to be the knockers and that ‘Dero Gero’ tag, but in some ways you embrace a little bit of it.

“I like the fact we have that ‘Wild West’ in us.

“We aren’t all hipsters. You can cruise around town in your boardies and thongs and enjoy it. I like that about Geraldton — it’s a very egalitarian society.”

Making a delayed debut in 2021, the Shore Leave festival is set to play a significant role in shaping Geraldton’s identity, according to Mr Van Styn.

The food festival is expected to inject more than $2.7 million into the economy over the next three years, attracting close to 2500 visitors from outside the Mid West.

More than 50 per cent of the ticket sales from the 2021 festival were bought by people living outside the region.

“Geraldton has always struggled with an identity,” Mr Van Styn said.

“We’ve lacked that big thing. We think the Abrolhos Islands is that.

“Where Shore Leave comes in is connecting Geraldton to the Abrolhos — building a brand and awareness.

“Shore Leave shows we can deliver high-end food and high-end events but done in a way that’s casual and relaxed.”

Focused on spending COVID stimulus funding handed out by the Federal and State Government, Mr Van Styn said the City was getting “back to basics” on public infrastructure.

Near the top of the City’s list is expanding its cycling network, building shared paths from Cape Burney to Tarcoola Beach and Drummond Cove to Sunset Beach.

One infrastructure project that has not gone down well with locals is the 12-month pilot program on Chapman Road which aims to slow down traffic and make the area more pedestrian friendly.

Admitting it needed tweaking, Mr Van Styn said the project wasn’t working as was initially planned because Main Roads didn’t support replacing nearby traffic lights for a pedestrian crosswalk.

He said the City would review the project at its half-way point in March.

“It has certainly reduced speed through there which was a primary focus of the job,” he said.

“All the measures we put in place are temporary. All the paint is coming off — that’s intentional.

“Public response to it certainly isn’t positive, there’s no question, but that’s why we put in trials so we can see what works.”

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