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Council takes lead on economic development as RDA changes tack
The Murray Bridge council has pulled funding from Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland as it prepares to open a business hub on Bridge Street.
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Who should bring together the Murraylands’ business community and help it thrive?
Is it Regional Development Australia, or a local business association?
Maybe – but it’s the Murray Bridge council taking the initiative at the moment.
Tired of RDA Murraylands and Riverland’s lack of focus on “the issues important to us”, as Mayor Wayne Thorley put it, the council is poised to open a hub on Bridge Street where small business owners, entrepreneurs and tertiary students can come together and get the support they need.
The state government came to the party in a big way on Monday, pledging around $500,000 to make sure a Murraylands Skills Centre would be part of the new facility.
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The hub will be available for:
Business people who need to hire desk space or meeting rooms
Tertiary students who need a study space after hours, when the Murray River Study Hub is closed
Anyone in need of information about local training and job opportunities, especially in industries with workforce shortages
The council will lease the former Centrelink office at 12 Bridge Street for the purpose.
It won’t be an empty shell, either.
The council will shift some of its own business-facing staff into the hub, bringing them out of the overcrowded local government centre and closer to where the action is.
Staff from relevant government agencies – such as the Office for Small and Family Business, or those with a presence at the flood recovery centre up the street – will be invited to join them.
“Council sees it has an important responsibility to create economic activity in our area,” Mr Thorley said.
“We’ve got some pretty positive progress on our planning relating to residential development … but we see a need for our community to grow our pie with regard to commercial activity.
“It’s about engaging not only with large businesses, but with small businesses.”
The hub’s location had been deliberately chosen to breathe new life back into the main street, he said.
However, the council’s decision to do economic development itself – and reallocate $100,000 in annual funding in the process – has had consequences up the road at RDA Murraylands and Riverland.
Regional Development Australia takes a long-term view
RDA Murraylands and Riverland CEO Ben Fee described it as an “organisational restructure” in an email on July 4.
More than half of the staff at the organisation’s Murray Bridge office did not have their contracts renewed at the end of the financial year.
That was partly a response to reduced funding, Mr Fee said – not just from the Murray Bridge council, but from Mid Murray as well, whose contribution RDA turned down in light of that council’s tricky post-flood financial situation.
But it was also about a change in direction.
RDA Murraylands and Riverland’s board had wanted to focus more on addressing the structural problems which handicapped the region’s economy, including housing and skills shortages – problems that governments struggled to address in the relatively short period between their elections.
That would mean changing the organisation’s shape and size, even as it continued to focus on its mission: connecting our region for a resilient and sustainable future.
“We had to make some difficult decisions around rationalising and making sure we could play the long game, getting funding for things we know need to progress,” Mr Fee said.
“We know how to do investment, we know how to work with governments, work with private industries, we know the economics of the region, we don’t lose any of that stuff; but the gap that we see is that there are very few organisations that actually operate in the long-term transform space.”
The state and federal funding which made up 35 per cent of RDA’s budget was guaranteed until mid-2025, and there were always project grants available, so he was not worried about sustainability.
But RDA would look at moving to a smaller office than its current premises at 137 Adelaide Road, he said, since it only had four employees left in Murray Bridge.
Mr Fee said he understood the reasons for the Murray Bridge council’s change of direction.
What about Business Murray Bridge?
Another party to the dynamics playing out in Murray Bridge’s business community at the moment is the local business association.
Business Murray Bridge has hosted a number of networking breakfasts since its re-launch in June of 2021.
But it has not yet been able to make good on a promise to hire a part-time coordinator: someone who could drive efforts to connect, listen to, communicate with and advocate for local business owners.
Chair Nathan Gates said the organisation was eager to hear from anyone who could help it achieve its aims, especially if they had time to join its committee and be a part of the solution.
He hoped to meet with Murray Bridge council CEO Heather Barclay in the near future to talk about how the two organisations could best work together to support the local business community, given the council’s current push into that space.
Disclosure: The author is a Business Murray Bridge committee member.