Mackay buoyed with sugar, mining and tourism on the rise
IT BORE the mining downturn like no other region in Australia, but in Mackay, the annual arrival of sugarcane's green fronds promise a prosperous future fuelled by an industry that shaped the past.
The sugar price surged around a third in 2016, a trend likely to continue as a rising Asian middle class demands the daily sugar hit that has become routine for the developed world.
The global taste for sugar - along with with the green shoots of recovery in mining, as well as a concerted effort by the Mackay Regional Council to reinvigorate a boutique tourism industry that faded during the resources boom - means Mackay is shaking off the gloom that descended with the collapse of the coal price in 2011.
Chairman of peak sugar industry group Canegrowers, Paul Schembri, whose family has farmed the district for almost a century, says a sugar price of 20c a pound is a crucial tipping point for growers.
At that level, farmers can absorb high production costs, including fuel, fertiliser, harvesting contracts and, increasingly, electricity, and look to reasonable profit margins that can push annual income on a medium-range 10,000-tonne family farm comfortably into the six figures.
The volume of the Queensland sugar harvest is also increasing in a steady upward trajectory, with the 2016 season reaching beyond 34 million tonnes, a significant increase on 2015, which recorded a 32.6 million tonne harvest.
"We are looking forward to the 2017 season with optimism," Mr Schembri said.
The industry, buoyed by the 3 per cent mandate on ethanol fuel championed in State Parliament by Katter's Australian Party and enforced as of January 1 this year (with a long-term aim by the KAP for a 10 per cent mandate), is looking to exploit the sunny outlook by expanding farming into low-lying coastal flats south west of the city.
But those with ambitions to exploit what could soon be a strong demand for ethanol as well as crystal sugar are frustrated by lack of water.
Local LNP Member for Dawson George Christensen has joined the LNP state Member for Whitsunday Jason Costigan in pushing the Urannah Dam project northwest of the city as a means of opening up agricultural land.
"Certainly, sugar could be grown in that area and, because the scope of the Urannah project brings such a large area of land into production, that could also mean a processing plant would be needed,'' Mr Christensen says.
"That could mean a cannery for fruit and vegetables or even another sugar mill, which would mean potentially hundreds more jobs.''
The value of the region's agricultural sector almost doubled from $203 million to $371 million from 2012-13 to 2014-15, according to data from economics and finance consultants AEC Group.
But the impact from the decline in mining-related jobs cut deep.
There are now more than 4000 people out of work in the city - a far cry from the 1200 in 2007, when the unemployment rate was just 2.1 per cent.
But things are picking up, with mining services companies benefiting from increased production, as resources companies cash in on high coal prices.
AEC Group chief executive officer Ashley Page said: "Mackay has a fairly unique technological (services) advantage which it can leverage now that there's a rise in mining production."
The number of jobs rose by 4000 last year and youth unemployment was halved.
Construction will start this year on the first stage of the $565 million Mackay Ring Road, an 11km route with 13 new bridges to overcome flood problems and boost access to the port for exports.
Due for completion by 2020, it will create 600 jobs.
And then there is the extraordinary promise represented by the $21 billion Adani coal project.
The Indian giant has already declared Mackay a maintenance hub for the proposed initiative, and Mayor Greg Williamson has offered Adani its own terminal at the Mackay Airport for FIFO workers.
Cr Williamson is also pouring council resources into promoting tourism.
The Pioneer Valley hinterland and Eungella National Park, as well as northern beaches including Cape Hillsborough, recently a social media favourite because of the regular appearance of playful kangaroos on the beach, have been heavily promoted in media campaigns.
"Mackay contains some world-class attractions, but too few people have heard about them, and we are determined to change that,'' Cr Williamson said.