The retail and business precinct is newly constructed on Palm Island. (ABC News: Dwayne Wyles)
Hopes are hinged on an empty building changing the future for one of Australia’s most disadvantaged areas.
- Palm Island’s economy loses millions of dollars each year with few retail options
- Calls are being made for government, corporate, community sectors to drive economic development
- There is potential to establish industries like tourism and aquaculture
Palm Island locals want the newly-built retail precinct to have the shops most people would expect in their community.
On the wish list is a hairdresser, a clothing store, and a newsagent.
Right now the island’s retail options are a busy fish and chip shop, service station, pharmacy, post office, pub, shuttle service, coffee van, bakery, op shop, and a grocery store that some say is overpriced.
About 2,500 people live there according to census data but local service providers say it can be up to 5,000 people at times.
Locals often take the one-and-an-a-half hour ferry ride to Townsville and the council says they spend millions of dollars on the mainland each year.
Palm Islanders spend millions each year on goods and services on the mainland. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)
Mayor Alf Lacey said he hoped the precinct, which could be full of businesses and service providers by year’s end, would arrest some of the economic leakage.
“We go to Townsville and we spend in Townsville and nothing in return,” Cr Lacey said.
“For us to move forward then we’ve got to be participating in that economic vision otherwise are we forever a mission?”
The busy fish and chip shop is one of the few locally owned businesses on Palm Island. (ABC News: Dwayne Wyles)
“It took quite a number of years to argue down the halls of Parliament … to change their minds in terms of economic opportunities for ourselves.”
The $10 million ‘retail and business precinct’ is funded by the Federal Government with an additional $1 million State Government contribution.
More local jobs
It is expected to create more local jobs and prioritise Palm Island business owners.
The unemployment rate was estimated to be about 51 per cent in September 2019, according to the Federal Government figures.
“We don’t want to keep talking about welfare,” Cr Lacey said.
Telstan Sibley owns a coffee van on Palm Island and wants a spot in the new retail precinct. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)
Telstan Sibley is one of the few locals who owns a business on the island.
He operates a coffee van and wants a space in the precinct to sell healthy food.
“Our people need to start ownership. That’s the only way we are going to go forward,” Mr Sibley said.
“There’s a lot of people from outside coming in and taking jobs.”
Tackling financial literacy
Hundreds of Palm Islanders will soon receive compensation under a $30 million class action payment for the 2004 riots and some of the $190 million stolen wages settlement.
Mr Sibley hopes claimants will invest and start-up businesses but is concerned about the sustainability of local start-ups.
“A lot of us don’t come from money. A lot of us never had a business before,” Mr Sibley said
Painted hands on a board on the side of a building depict some of the painful past including the 2004 riots, sparked by an Indigenous death in custody. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)
Jon O’Mally from Indigenous Consumer Assistance Network (ICAN) said government, corporate and community sectors needed to work together to improve economic development, including financial literacy.
“It’s an injection of money in the short-term and the sustainability is looking for an injection of money for the very long term,” Mr O’Mally said.
“To build really strong economies, the key is about keeping the money within the economy.
“We are concerned there is a lot of dodgy trading, there’s a lot of scammers, there’s a lot of vultures out there willing to take money from those economies.
Idyllic outlook but support workers says scammers and payday lenders are drains on Palm Island’s economy. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)
“How can we skill and support people who are going to be exposed to higher income potentially?
“How can we sustain that for them to make informed decisions?
“If that takes place, the longevity and potential for economic development in these communities have a greater opportunity.”
Tourism, aquaculture potential
Children enjoy Palm Island’s crystal-clear waters and tourists would too, but not many come. (ABC News: Sofie Wainwright)
Palm Island has the potential to be a tourist hot spot — it is surrounded by the Great Barrier Reef and full of culture, stories, and eye-catching landscapes.
Aquaculture is another possibility though there would be restrictions under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
Pearl, oyster and sponge farms have come and gone but a not-for-profit organisation is looking to set up giant clam farming.
Deloitte Access Economics partner Nicki Hutley said the ‘big jigsaw puzzle’ of improving Indigenous economies included entrepreneurship and a skilled workforce.
“The more we are able to foster and encourage small business entrepreneurship … the better off our society will be,” Ms Hutley said.
“You need to have a skilled workforce around you [and] the intergenerational mentoring, the creation of wealth … tend to be self sustaining.”
‘Plagued’ by land tenure
Cr Lacey said having a patch of freehold land would drive economic independence and give banks and investors more confidence to back business.
Palm Island is under a Deed of Grant in Trust (DOGIT) where people can obtain a lease but not buy the land.
Palm Island mayor Alf Lacey wants the island to have an patch of freehold land for businesses. (ABC News: Dwayne Wyles)
Land can be converted to freehold, which means the purchaser can own the land, but that has not been achieved on DOGIT land.
There are administrative, financial and legal hurdles, including surrendering Native Title, and initial eligibility is limited.
“Land tenure is always going to plague us,” Cr Lacey said.
“Unless we get a bit of an economic zone in the town, we’re never going to, I’m never going to, get a loan from the bank if I want to start a hairdresser shop up.
“The letting and leasing and freehold titling or whatever we want to call it will then allow for people to opt in or opt out the way general business at the CBD in Townsville does.”
Experts say converting Deed of Grant in Trust land to freehold does not necessarily increase investment opportunities. (ABC News: Dwayne Wyles)
UNSW senior law lecturer Dr Leon Terrill said a lot of commercial activity on Aboriginal land occurred through transferable leases rather than freehold.
“Land tenure is important but it is only part of the story,” Dr Terrill said.
“What seems to have had more of an impact is having well-resourced support organisations with established relationships and long-term funding.
“Another factor is the extent to which governments are supportive and willing to try new things,” he said.