Harvey Norman CEO Gerry Harvey.
Harvey Norman CEO Gerry Harvey. Louise Kennerley

Gerry Harvey confident about Coast economy

THE Maroochydore Homemaker Centre is one year and four days old today, and the CEO of its anchor tenant, Gerry Harvey, couldn't be happier.

Admitting to opening the doors back on November 12, 2012 amidst a "shaky economic climate", he said the feedback from staff and the public has been overwhelmingly positive, with people from as far as Bundaberg and Hervey Bay coming to shop.

"In terms of trade, it was expected we would take some hits to profits in the first five years; however, sales in our first year are as good as anyone could have hoped," he said.

"While it was always going to be difficult to top hot spots like Townsville, the Gold Coast or Toowoomba, the centre compares very well with a lot of similar centres in Brisbane."

A details man who scrutinises every bit of data available on sales, demographics and buying patterns, Mr Harvey said he was seeing signs of growth in the Sunshine Coast economy.

"It appears to be very much in recovery mode," he said.

"Some have attributed this in part to an increase in the number of fly-in, fly-out workers in the region over the past few years, but I think - as many others have said before me - the roll-out of several large-scale infrastructure projects like the new medical precinct in Kawana, have been the real catalyst for growth.

"Projects like this build both business and consumer confidence, so it's no surprise the local economy is beginning to strengthen.

"It was really encouraging to see the strongest quarterly results for the retail sector in six years recorded this year.

"That said, the Sunshine Coast is still experiencing an unemployment rate that is slightly higher than the state average, and the youth unemployment rate is particularly high, so there is undoubtedly a long way to go in building the local economy.

"Current trade conditions are not perfect, but I'm confident they will get better as a direct result of population growth and investment in business and infrastructure.

"I expect Maroochydore in particular will be a local hotspot for business given the plans for the new Principal Activity Centre. At present, we need more business activity in the region to keep people from going to Brisbane to earn a living."

Mr Harvey said he took something of a risk to avert his gaze from the difficult retail conditions the centre opened in, and instead look up towards a horizon of recovery.

"At the time it was developed, the retail sector was facing volatile sales and a changing marketplace. For us, it was about looking beyond the immediate economic environment and planning for the future."

He said the future of the centre was about servicing the needs of a growing Coast population.

"With 18 out of 19 retail tenancies now filled, our efforts are currently being directed towards supporting our retailers and continuing to deliver some of the biggest names on the retail circuit to Sunshine Coast residents," he said.

"There are also still a handful of commercial tenancies available in the centre, so another aim over the coming months and years will be to build the centre up to full capacity.

"Right now, all of our energy is being focused on the centre, but I'd never say never to the idea of expanding Harvey Norman's presence in the Sunshine Coast region down the track."

Thoughts on...
Flexible operating hours

"You really need to judge each regional centre on a case-by-case basis when considering whether more flexible operating hours are beneficial to both business owners and community members. I think the only way for extended operating hours to be viable for a wide cross-section of businesses on the Sunshine Coast is if the business community as a whole makes a conscious step to embrace them. You'd really need a large volume of businesses to get on board and I don't know that the Sunshine Coast is ready to take that step just yet. As the population increases, there may be more demand for flexible operating hours, but it's not something I'd consider a top priority at the present time."

Better pedestrian access to the MHC
"I think the current level of pedestrian access to the Maroochydore Homemaker Centre is adequate for the time being. As Sunshine Coast Council redevelops the Horton Park precinct in the coming years, we may need to reassess this but it's certainly not an urgent priority for us at this point in time."

More public transport needed?
"I think it's important to integrate multiple forms of public transport, rather than just getting behind one. Light rail can work particularly well alongside cars and pedestrians, and I think this option certainly poses a number of benefits to the Sunshine Coast community if done well.
"It will be interesting to see what recommendations come from Sunshine Coast Council's light rail feasibility study, concept design and business case when it is released in 2014. Personally, I think a combination of light rail and bus transport options will be the best mix for the area."

THE Harvey Norman CEO examines data from sources like the Bureau of Statistics, Office of Economic and Statistical Research and CommSec when making business decisions.

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