Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Belshaw's World: Armidale’s failure to sell itself

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on Wednesday 22 April 2009. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here.

I can understand why Armidale people were upset at the city’s failure to make the top town list. I too was upset. It was a sufficiently silly result to throw doubts on the whole judging process.

I may have been upset, but I wasn’t surprised.

Growing up in Armidale, I expected people to know where the city was and indeed most did. Located in what was then widely seen as some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery, this was Australia’s only university city. It was also the centre of a rich wool district when Australia still rode on the sheep’s back, the capital in waiting for those fighting for New England self-government, the educational hub for a wide area.

The New State Movement alone generated more press coverage for Armidale than the city achieves today in total. As one of Sydney’s local parochial dailies, the Sydney Morning Herald’s coverage was hardly sympathetic, but the coverage was there.

Today, very few people actually know where Armidale is. The city has dropped below the radar.

Every pillar that once supported Armidale’s prominent position has declined in importance or even vanished. Just to list a few.

The Great Northern Railway has gone. The Pacific Highway has replaced the New England Highway as the main north-south road. New university centres have arisen. Boarding has declined in importance, assisted by Queensland government subsidies that at one blow stripped Armidale’s schools of their country Queensland boarders.

Too far from Sydney or Brisbane to attract the day or weekend visitors that have helped places such as Orange or the Lower Hunter build tourist traffic, Armidale has become something of a backwater.

The changes in Australia that have made Armidale a backwater will continue.

Last year Australia accepted a record number of migrants. Less well recognised, we also lost a record number of Australians through emigration. In combination, these changes were so big that roughly one current Australian resident in fifty did not live in this country twelve months ago.

This column is not about immigration. I support Australia’s immigration program.

My point is that most of these new residents have absolutely no knowledge of Armidale, nor are they likely to get it at present.

We cannot turn the clock back. We have to find new ways of responding.

I do not think that Armidale does a very good job in selling itself, a failure not assisted by the fiasco of Tourism NSW’s two brand solution.

Part of the problem lies in confusion in messages, between the need to promote Armidale as a place to live while also promoting the city as a tourism destination.

I think that the Thrive campaign, in conjunction with things such as Armidale’s participation in Country Week, has actually done a reasonably good job in presenting the city as a good place to live.

The problem is that the things that make Armidale a good place to live are not the things that attract visitors, nor do they assist the city to differentiate itself, to find a place within the increasingly complex Australian mosaic.

The fact that I can get good coffee in Armidale, attend a play or listen to some music may help me decide to live there. However, it is not going to make me want to visit. I can find all those things elsewhere.

One of the remarkable things of the last five years is the way Melbourne has re-branded itself as a European city.

In using the word European I am not talking ethnicity, but culture and life style.

For a number of complicated reasons many Australians, and especially the young, have fallen in love with Europe. Melbourne has ridden this wave with perfection, creating acute distress for Sydney’s current Lord Mayor.

In my next column I will look at the lessons Armidale might draw from Melbourne.

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