Foreign investor plan to create ‘rural Chinatown’ in WA’s Midwest
Foreign investors have purchased hundreds of hectares of land in WA’s Midwest with a view to establishing a rural Chinatown, including an English-language school.
City of Greater Geraldton Mayor Shane Van Styn revealed the bold plan by developer PIP Holdings to create the suburb in the city’s eastern fringe.
It includes building homes specifically for Chinese migrants and associated service industries to cater to their needs.
Cr Van Styn said foreign investment could be just the ticket to revitalise the region’s main city, located 400 kilometres north of Perth.
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But there are questions about whether the proposed development will help or hinder the region.
Geraldton, a once-thriving city built on agriculture and lobster fishing, enjoyed a boom through iron ore mining and exploration but is now battling a shrinking population and rising unemployment.
It was for this reason that Cr Van Styn said he believed overseas investment would be the key to revitalising the struggling region.
“They’re proposing anywhere up to 1,500 houses, a commercial centre, and that school in the centre,” he said.
“This is proposing building two years’ worth of houses in one single development, so it would be a building boom unlike anything ever seen.
“All staff, all construction, all works done on this development will be Australian; that is a mandatory requirement.”
Land zoning complete
The Singaporean syndicate has purchased more than 200 hectares of prime agricultural land at Moresby, just kilometres from the centre of Geraldton.
The site has been rezoned from rural to urban, and Cr Van Styn said he hoped the development would see Geraldton’s population, which sits at about 38,000, grow by up to 5 per cent.
But migration economist Christopher Parsons said the lack of detailed information provided by the city was worrying.
“It’s not feasible to meaningfully evaluate the incidence of costs and benefits for Geraldton or the immigrants.”
He added that a significant influx in Chinese migrants could also pose a problem for the community.
“This could result in increased social tensions, potentially compounded by the absence of a common tongue.”
Cr Van Styn said the school would be separate from the Australian school curriculum and service middle to upper middle-class Chinese residents.
“It’s like a vocational college, much like you see at the international schools in Perth … somewhere to go and learn English.”
Luring Chinese interest
The project is the latest in a series of moves by the local government to take advantage of China’s rising interest in the Midwest.
Earlier this month the city launched the China Connect website, a two-way portal that gives consumers in China direct access to tourism packages, products and investment opportunities in the Midwest.
The city’s economic development officer, Han Jie Davis, said she wanted to see a portfolio of opportunities on the website for Chinese ventures looking to invest in the region.
“Some Chinese, they are looking for farms, and they want to invest in Australia, so they can maybe just search ‘farm for sale’ in Australia,” she said.
The website, hosted on a Chinese server, also gives Australians access to tours and products in China.
Chinese tourism in the Midwest has grown rapidly in the past five years, as visitors flock to visit the pink lakes and taste western rock lobster, both a status symbol for the wealthy.
Local businesses, meanwhile, are moving to cash in on the influx.
Flight charter operator Wendy Mann now employs three Chinese-born Australian-trained pilots, as well as an interpreter to ensure her guests can converse in their native language.
Cr Van Styn said hotels and restaurants in the city were struggling to keep up with the demand, and a lack of Mandarin-speaking staff was a major obstacle in providing the service expected.
“Any tourist, when they travel abroad to a country that speaks a foreign language that they are unable to speak, much prefers someone that can at least communicate in their own language.
“There’s a significant language barrier between Mandarin and English.”
The Mayor said the city wanted to apply for a Designated Area Migration Agreement — a scheme that enables employers to bring skilled and semi-skilled overseas workers to regions experiencing skills and labour shortages.
Mr Parsons said the benefits of the proposed language school would depend on whether the incoming migrants added to or replaced Geraldton locals.
“Will the construction of the international school … increase demand for local goods and services resulting in additional jobs?” he said.
“Or will the lack of access to Mandarin-speaking staff result in Chinese workers providing goods and services to the newly hosted Chinese population?”