Ballina set to overtake Lismore in population boom
LISMORE'S crown as the region's population centre could be taken by Ballina in as little as two months as the coastal shire's population continues to swell while Lismore's declines.
The most recent population estimates from June 2017 put the Lismore local government area population at 43,816, compared to Ballina's 43,064.
Lismore LGA lost 238 residents in the 12 months to June 2017, while Ballina added 438.
If that trend repeats, the Ballina LGA - which includes the fast-growing areas of Lennox Head, Wollongbar, and Cumbalum - will be bigger than Lismore by September.
But Lismore could be at an important turning point.
Unemployment has fallen dramatically over the last two years, and in the last 12 months more residential land has been sold in Lismore in a single year than since the 1990s.
In 2016-17 financial year, Lismore also had a bumper year for development approvals, with commercial and residential developments worth $166 million - the biggest in two decades - and bigger than Ballina.
But some observers want to see the population trend reverse before they celebrate.
Lismore Chamber of Commerce vice president Andrew Gordon said Lismore was one of only three councils east of the Great Dividing Range to lose residents in 2016-17 (Kyogle was another).
He warned that population decline risked future government funding, crucial to underpinning services and infastructure.
"We don't have enough growth to sustain what we have. This city has huge potential which would benefit everyone... but the business community needs to be thriving."
Mr Gordon said Ballina was partly growing at Lismore's expense, and it's true: ABS statistics show Lismore lost 260 residents to Ballina in the five years between 2012 and 2017.
He blamed that on the lack of steady new land releases in and around Lismore.
"I see Ballina is populating, they are generating income through growing their ratepayer base... the rates they pay down there are significantly cheaper than what Lismore has... and with more people, there is more requirement for services, and more requirement for staff," he said.
MAYOR NOT CONCERNED
But Lismore mayor Isaac Smith has dismissed concerns about population decline, saying he was confident there would be an increase in the next statistical period.
"I don't think we have any long-term concerns," he said.
"Those same statistics which tell us we're down a small number of people also tell us we've got the lowest unemployment rate we've had in two decades."
Unemployment across the region is falling, with Lismore recording an impressive 5.6% unemployment rate in the March 2018 quarter - down from almost 10% two years ago.
"People are (coming) here, the work is here, it's only a matter of time before those two things line up," the mayor said.
Lismore real estate agent Paul Deegan said while growth had been slow in Lismore for some time, things looked to have turned around in the last 12 months.
He said an estimated 200 lots had been sold in the last 12 months.
He said the first stage of a new subdivision in Chilcotts Grass, 40 lots, had sold out quickly, with 130 lots in the second stage.
He said many buyers were young couples who were living in apartments Ballina but who wanted to start families in Lismore where they worked, and land was more affordable.
Lismore is still the region's jobs capital, boasting 16,868 full-time equivalent jobs in 2016-17, compared to Ballina's 12,793.
But only two thirds of Lismore's employees live in Lismore. The remaining third come from Ballina, and Richmond Valley, and to a lesser extent Byron Shire and Kyogle.
Mr Gordon said that wasn't good for retail business in Lismore.
"We have 28,000 traffic movements on our arterials every day," he said.
"People come to Lismore, they earn their living here, but then they take their wage and they spend it somewhere else.
"That's the problem when we don't capture the wealth that we generate, and we're not affording that capture because we're not offering the solutions to stay for them to stay."
"Our neighbouring shires are and they are growing at our expense."
"That's what's slowly killing us, the money that drains from this LGA and goes somewhere else."
Jane Laverty, regional manager Northern Rivers for the NSW Business Chamber, said playing Ballina and Lismore off against each other was deeply counter-productive.
"The Northern Rivers as a whole needs to promote itself as a region for the wonderful things it has to offer," she said.
She said the regional perspective was needed to combat talent drain to Queensland which was good at promoting itself as a "solid unit" and attracting people to live.
Lismore lost 706 residents to the Gold Coast and Brisbane in the five years to the 2016 census.
"We've got to be talking us up, not talking any place down," Ms Laverty said.
She said Lismore offered "highly sought after community assets" such as NORPA, the Lantern Parade, and the Lismore show, and had a lot of opportunity to attract government funding.
"We've never seen a time in the Northern Rivers where there has been so much opportunity from a funding perspective," she said.
"There is a lot of money hitting the ground over the next two years and Lismore is very well placed."
Town planner Damian Chapelle said Lismore was the undisputed regional centre with key health, education and service industries.
"There are several projects planned for Lismore which look to consolidate the city's role as the Regional Centre and will contribute to employment generation," he said.
"This in turn will attract new residents to Lismore."
"It is then critical to provide housing choice for new residents so as to provide an attractive residential option."
PREPARE FOR GROWTH
Ballina mayor David Wright said both cities had different things to offer which from a regional perspective this was a good thing.
He also applauded Ballina Shire Council for being well prepared for population growth so it didn't compromise the quality of life for existing residents.
That meant driving firm negotiations with developers to ensure appropriate infrastructure was in place from day one of a development.
"We've got to make sure we don't lose what we've got here that makes people come," he said.
"No one wants to be bigger or better, we just want to cater for what's coming."