Tweed Shire councillors last night decided to continue a contract with Destination Tweed to manage tourism services and promote business investment, despite a report by Tweed Shire’s general manager critical of its performance.
Councillors also decided for Council and the tourism body to collaborate over economic development functions, which had sparked much debate and criticism in the GM’s report.
New general manager David Keenan recommended a change in the relationship between Council and the organisation, which is funded annually to the tune of almost $1 million, in order to better deliver economic development, including tourism and major events, to the shire.
But he admitted there was some debate as to what economic development actually meant, saying there was consensus it was the process of expanding the economy by increasing an area’s level of income and capital/wealth and distributing that wealth.
One of the options included folding it altogether and returning most of its functions and services in-house for Council to deliver.
Destination Tweed manages the shire’s two visitor information centres (VICs) and promotes and markets the area for tourism and to attract business. It uses around 17 per cent of its budget from council to market the region to attract business investment.
Mr Keenan said Tweed Shire Council was currently the only local government authority in NSW that outsources both economic development and tourism functions and services to an external body.
Mr Keenan noted that the Tweed’s labour workforce ‘has not grown significantly over the past three years, although population has’ and unemployment levels remained above the state and national averages.
He also said that only a few new businesses had set up in Tweed Shire in the past three years and very few local businesses had expanded in that time.
But last night, majority councillors backed a move by Crs Katie Milne and Gary Bagnall for the option where Destination Tweed continues with the contract, and establishing an economic development advisory committee in which it could also have a role.
Cr Milne said Destination Tweed by most accounts had served the shire well; there had been no complaints so there was no reason to prematurely end the contract.
She said the previous council had earmarked $100,000 for economic development, which in collaboration with Destination Tweed’s expertise, would serve the shire well in future.
But Cr Caroline Byrne said she was concerned that could lead to a duplication of services and ‘greater complexity with what we’re trying to minimise’.
Cr Byrne, who with Crs Warren Polglase and Phil Youngblutt opposed the move, said Destination Tweed’s great strength was in tourism promotion and that’s what it should promote.
Cr Michael Armstrong said it would not duplicate services but provide an opportunity for the organisation to work in partnership with Council, using the ‘invaluable’ experience in economic development that Mr Keenan had as well as Council staff’s expertise.
Mayor Barry Longland said he’d like to see an in-house advisory committee to act as a ‘portal’ for business to get the help and information they need to set up in the Tweed, and the move offered ‘a great opportunity to work in partnership’.
Cr Polglase failed in his move to remove Destination Tweed’s function in attracting business and investment, saying it was ‘strong in tourism but not in economic development’.
He said many small businesses were ‘disappearing’ and big ones ‘crashing’ and more emphasis had to be placed on economic development.
He said Council was better placed than Destination Tweed as businesses usually came to Council first for advice on setting up.
But Cr Armstrong described that move as ‘a dangerous position’, saying he was concerned with the ‘unilateral termination’ of part of the contract, and the risk of having to pay compensation ‘if we do it’.
Cr Milne’s motion got up 4–3 (Crs Polglase, Youngblutt and Byrne against).
Destination Tweed chair Anne Duke and her chief executive Bill Tatchell, who observed the debate, welcomed the outcome as a big endorsement of their work to date and the best option for the Tweed community.
Mr Tatchell told Echonetdaily the group looked forward to working with council in dealing with key issues, agreeing with the report that there had been a downturn in visitors to the visitor information centres, but said that was in line with national trends.
He said what was not in the report was that yield per visitor was increasing with people ‘booking and buying more’ and the organisation as ‘working smarter’.
Ms Duke defended Destination Tweed when media queried the two about the report bringing into question the organisation’s ability to provide the ‘economic development’ side of the contract.
She said ‘we’re not doing economic development, we just do one small piece of economic development, and it’s called business attraction’.
‘We don’t have an economic development strategic policy which would look at a whole pile of stuff, it would look at agriculture and broader issues, and that’s the issue that councillors Milne and Armstrong were really onto, that it’s an opportunity now with the funding for council now to put together a proper economic strategy’.
Not add up
Mr Tatchell said council used to support the Tweed Economic Development Corporation (TEDC) with $800,000 a year, yet Destination Tweed’s component for the role is around $200,000 per year all up ‘so where did the rest of all that money go that used to go to economic development?’
‘The matter of more with less is an adage for the modern world, but $800,000 down to $165,000? It doesn’t equate.’
In a press releasse issued later, Ms Duke said Destination Tweed had been ‘overwhelmed by the supportive feedback we have received from tourism and business operators all over the shire since the general manager’s report into the future responsibility for the delivery of tourism services and economic development was released last week’.
‘With the high Australian dollar and global financial crisis (GFC) having such a significant impact on the tourism sector, coupled with the recent disbanding of Northern Rivers Tourism as the industry’s peak regional body, our tourism operators say that is has never been more crucial to have a dedicated professional team promoting the Tweed to our key target markets.
‘And we have got the runs on the board: in the 11/12 financial year, Destination Tweed has booked close to $500,000 in direct reservations for our operators and our Visitor Information Centres have retailed over $60,000 of predominantly local products; and over the past three years, we have generated more than $10 million in media coverage for the Tweed in international, national, major metro, key regional and local media.
‘In terms of promoting the region to attract new businesses, Council’s vote clearly acknowledges the team’s expertise in marketing and the progress made to date through initiatives such as the establishment of the Tweed Business Advisory Board, the Business Retention and Expansion survey currently underway in Murwillumbah, the attraction of major sporting events and our attendance at key business promotion events including this year’s Regional Country and Living Expo.’