US mayor believes future lies with uni

Gordon Bradbery, the mayor of Wollongong with former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy. Picture: KIRK GILMOURWollongong has many pieces of the puzzle for a successful future, it’s just a matter of putting them together.

That’s the message from former Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy, who was widely credited with turning that city from “the most environmentally degraded city in America” to being ranked by The Economist last year as the most liveable city in America.

Mr Murphy was in Australia as a keynote speaker for the Property Council of Australia’s Property Congress in Sydney last week.

The Illawarra chapter of the council invited him to Wollongong to see how another steel city could learn from him.

After a tour of the city, Mr Murphy said Wollongong’s potential was enhanced by its natural geography and the presence of the university and Innovation Campus.

“You have the pieces. It’s a question of whether you have the political will to put it together. That’s really the challenge for you,” Mr Murphy said.

“There are a lot of towns that don’t have a strong university presence like you do, or this spectacular setting. So how do you build on that?”

One of the approaches Mr Murphy took as Pittsburgh mayor was to get the city to buy the closed-down steel mills and redevelop them into riverside parks and areas where firms including Google opted to set up.

He said that, like Pittsburgh, Wollongong seemed to be “managing decline” – knowing the steelworks was winding down but not planning what to do next.

“You’ve gone from 30,000 to 3000 people [at the steelworks] so it would seem to me that the light bulb ought to go off, that we have this jigsaw puzzle and we’re losing what was historically our major employer.

“So there’s going to be a lot of land if that mill shuts down. How do we intentionally begin to reposition our city?

“Maybe all that property becomes reused for something else. But how do you position yourself in a global economy so that somebody would want to be there?”

Two big assets are the university and Innovation Campus – but the region needs to work out how to keep the new technologies it develops in the city.

“Your universities are your biggest raw material,” he said.

“Coal was your biggest raw material at one point, but universities have the intellectual ability to drive an economy – and you have the Innovation Campus as the beginning of that.

“My sense is that you’re going to grow and commercialise some of the research, but then it’s going to move.

“I don’t know that you’ve built the infrastructure you need to grow a technology economy, so you need venture capital so a young person coming out of university with a good idea, she needs some money to commercialise that.

“If she gets the money from Sydney or California, then she’ll go to Sydney or California.

“You get a fair amount of research dollars but there’s not a focused effort to commercialise that, and to keep it here.”

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