OPINION / Part 1 Breaking Down the Douglas Shire Council’s Draft Economic Development Plan


Key issues to address:

  • Support the diversification and expansion of the tourism industry
  • Support the diversification and innovation of the agricultural industry
  • Targeted growth of the Shire’s population and rate base

Last week the Douglas Shire Council released the highly anticipated Draft Douglas Shire Economic Development Strategy 2021-2024 (DDSEDS).

Preparing to wade through and analyse 40 pages of issues, supporting documents, opportunities, current activities, future action plans, and time-lined outcomes was an exciting prospect. However, it was somewhat perplexing when 24 pages landed outlining three priority drivers and five supporting priorities containing only a blurb and a “what we’ll do” section. 

The “meat” we were looking to analyse – time lines, costings, reference documents and accompanying strategies and reports from stakeholder groups – in particular, the missing-in-action Economic Strategic Review Committee report from March 2020 was, well, missing.

“This Strategy formalises the findings of the Economic Strategic Review Committee, market trends and considers the impact of COVID-19 on the Douglas economy” (DSDEDS, 2020 p7).

However, the findings of the ESRC which were due in March 2020 were never released publicly; therefore, it was impossible to cross-reference these with the draft strategy.

Additionally, the discussions and findings of the COVID-19 driven Economic Recovery Group announced in March 2020 were also not to be found. Douglas News Network’s understanding is this group have not met since mid last year.

With no timeline driven outcomes, no accompanying reports analysing relevant costs or explanations of how the priority drivers and supporting drivers were to implemented, genuine analysis of the Draft Economic Development Strategy was not an option. Therefore, the following opinion is based generated on the face value of the document.

1. Support the diversification and expansion of the tourism industry

Recognising the appeal of the Shire as a choice for the conscious traveller who, “values sustainable experiences and considers the wider social and economic impact of their travels” (DSDDES, 2020) is an essential step in our recovery and future. It is promising to see this statement listed at the top of the three economic priorities. However, of the eight, “What we’ll do” points, only two are truly fresh ideas, as TPDD already have the vast majority of projects under control and moving forward in development as part of their long-established funding agreement with Council.

The New Ideas:

  • The establishment of a Food Tourism Working Group to “increase demand for the region’s uniquely exotic fresh produce … to enhance the food and wine experience in the region” (DSDEDS, 2020).
  • Grow the region’s profile for hosting sporting events

These are both excellent ideas, capable of diversifying and increasing tourism-based opportunities for the region.

Adversely, one must question in particular which sports the Council are considering for their sports tourism portfolio. 

  • Which sports are being considered?
  • Do they fall outside the peak season to encourage visitation in the offseason?
  • Given Council’s recent loud objection to the Ironman event cycling through Port Douglas, will sports tourism shy away from a region so vocal about what is perceived as providing little to no economic benefit to the Shire?

Back to the food though. In a region abundant with rich agricultural land, clean air, clean water and a growing desire to implement regenerative farming processes, Douglas is positioned to become a leader in this field, particularly in the identified sectors of bush tucker and medicinal crops outlined in the next Priority 2.

2. Support the diversification and innovation of the agricultural industry

The purchase of the Mossman Mill in 2019 secured hundreds of direct and indirect jobs and future employment opportunities, however the DSDEDS does not provide any real support to the longevity or economic success of the Mill, palming it off to the growers noting the Mill will:

  • investigate alternative uses for its mill feedstock to make value-adding products (DSDEDS, 2020).

The DSDEDS looks to “support diversification into new commodities and aquaculture, using a strong framework of proven and performing local farming businesses” (DSDEDS, 2020).

What is the strong framework, and how will Council:

  • Support Far Northern Milling?
  • Lead, coordinate and participate in an Agriculture Diversifican Plan – who will write it, who will pay for it, who will implement it, when will it happen, and what are the short-, medium- and long-term goals of the plan?
  • Who are the peak industry bodies, how will Council work with farmers and traditional owners, what are the new business opportunities in niche and new agriculture? What is the timeframe and cost?

3. Targeted growth of the Shire’s population and rate base

Over the years, the Shire has become increasingly aware of diversifying the tourism and agriculture sectors. The DSDEDS rightly points out COVID-19 has presented opportunities in population diversity with the workforce adapting to and accepting working remotely from home and seeking a more outstanding work/life balance.

Positively, those seeking to live and work remotely from employers enabling them to embrace the lifestyle Douglas offers, have been identified as:

  • Consistent, year-round spenders
  • Not requiring jobs already existent in the area
  • Service users

The DSDEDS notes it does not “foresee a large population increase … (but) a relatively small increase in the rate base through affluent job independent residents.”

However, the strategy goes on to note the Council will:

  • Analyse the Planning Scheme to identify potential sites and business development opportunities within the Douglas Shire to support lifestyle developments and actively promote these opportunities – do they mean retirement villages? If so, is this in direct contrast to the demographic listed above?

Currently, anecdotal evidence suggests there is, on average, a two – four week wait to see a GP in the Douglas Shire, with at least one local practice no longer taking on new patients.

Wrapping up the three key priorities leaves us in a problematic state without being adequately addressed. 

Food tourism requires the preservation of agricultural land to and enough water to prosper.

Sports and Event tourism requires adequate road access from Cairns and the support of the population.

Agricultural diversification requires land to diversify.

Population growth requires reducing agricultural land for development, increased water supply and improved services in the health and education sector.

So what comes first? The chicken or the egg? 

Part two tomorrow…

Feature Image Credit / Kgbo, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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[…] on from yesterday’s article, we continue to break down the supporting priorities to perhaps offer a glimpse of the deeper […]