A bold plan to create a combined university-TAFE campus in the heart of Nelson Bay is not only meeting a need but is being hailed as a catalyst for change and the revitalisation of a stale and tired looking central business district.
The proposal for a tertiary education hub by the Tomaree Business Chamber has sound support from the business and industry sectors across Port Stephens.
However, the project was drawn a level of caution from Tomaree Community College, which puts 3000-plus students through its training corridors every year.
College CEO Linda Drake said that she welcomed a facility offering university level training to help those that are completing their chosen degree due to travel constraints and poor public transport.
“I can only hope the project doesn’t end up being a white elephant and is complementary to what is already available here at the local level,” she warned.
The chamber has earmarked the disused multi-storey carpark in Donald Street as the proposed site for the facility, encompassed in a commercial building complete with student accommodation and car parking.
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Chamber business development manager Peter Clough said that the facility had the capacity to entice more young people into the CBD, as well as to halt the ‘brain drain’ currently experienced on the Tomaree Peninsula.
He estimated a cost of $8 million to $10 million for the total redevelopment of the site which could be offset by commercial development.
“Our research has shown that there is a real need on the peninsula for tertiary education primarily in industries such as aged care, tourism/hospitality and marine,” Mr Clough said.
“It makes good economic sense to up-skill the hundreds of students who finish Year 12 in Port Stephens schools each year in a range of university and TAFE level courses which are currently not available in the Bay.”
Mr Clough said that there was initial support from the two major aged care facilities, with Port Stephens Veterans and Citizens Aged Care general manager Sheree Gemmell happy to continue working collaboratively with key stakeholders.
Another supporter was Sienna’s restaurant owner Anna Lauricella, who has two staff members commuting to Newcastle for their tertiary studies.
Twenty-two-year-old apprentice chef James Ekins is studying to be a chef, while part-time waitress Phoebe Reeder, 21, spends 13 hours a day twice a week travelling from her Nelson Bay home to Tighes Hill TAFE where she is studying to be a beautician.
“It makes for a long day. It would easier if I could study locally,” she said.
Earlier this year the business chamber commissioned Newcastle University business student Lachlan Stronarch to research the current and future needs of industry on the Tomaree peninsula, as well as the impacts around issues such as the ‘brain drain’ syndrome, demographics, transport, economy and employment.
In his report, Mr Stronach identified aged care, tourism and marine as being appropriate to the Port economy, with student accommodation being a key driver to injecting more young people into the Nelson Bay CBD.
Mr Stronach suggested that funding could be sourced from both Federal and State government and would require for Port Stephens Council to make the land available.
“There would be a role for innovation champions and in addition to education, the space could include carparking, a bike hub, training rooms, co-op space, acceleration and incubation areas, commercial space and accommodation."
Mr Clough agreed that the innovation of tertiary education in the Bay would take some time to gain momentum, but believed that once the idea was planted it had the potential to sprout and meet a pressing need.
“The chamber’s thinking is that tertiary training is essential to ensuring the viability of the Bay and the Tomaree Peninsula economy, so it makes sense to have these training facilities close to people’s homes and places of employment,” he said.
“With good planning we could have students travelling to the Bay from areas like Tilligerry, Medowie and Raymond Terrace, and with onsite accommodation we could attract students from outside of Port Stephens.”
Mr Clough said that a commercial element was integral in the planning. “The carpark site measures in excess of 3,600 square metres, which could attract some of the larger commercial tenants.
He said that the chamber was committed to further research of the concept and that a recent meeting attended by 18 industry leaders including Newcastle University Vice Chancellor Caroline McMillen had proved very productive in formulating a way forward.
“A working group committee of seven is proposed with a first meeting expected to be convened shortly,” he said.