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    Regional Development Australia Grampians chair Stuart Benjamin.

Ararat region positioned to drive state forward

By Jessica Grimble 

The Ararat region is poised to flourish, and support the entire state of Victoria to thrive into the future. 

Value-adding agricultural products locally, capitalising on renewable energy projects and initiatives, embracing tourism and heritage, continued expansion of an existing high-quality health and aged care sector, and engaging with the region’s education and training offerings stand as the five greatest opportunities for the regional city.  

That’s the message from Regional Development Australia Grampians chair Stuart Benjamin, who shared his vision at the East Grampians Business Awards in Ararat last month. 

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Mr Benjamin, an economist, property developer and small business-owner, said education and training was the ‘secret sauce’ to unlocking the region’s potential and improving its youth unemployment and disengagement rates, at two and five percent respectively — which are above the statewide average. 

Conversely, he said Ararat, with its train connectivity and quality healthcare, should be home to a 200-house retirement village for people wanting to retire in the region. 

“The opportunities that exist for this town, and this community, are extraordinary,” he said. 

In highlighting the opportunities and challenges facing the region, he said about one-third of Ararat’s residents relied on government benefits and allowances as their main source of income — representing about five percent more than the state as a whole. 

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It reflects the fact we have a good healthcare system, and we have an aging population who are able to age in place. I actually think it’s going to be one of the big opportunities for this community,” he said. 

“I am absolutely staggered that we don’t have a 200-house retirement village in this community. 

“We have all these people who want to retire here, we are blessed with the train that will take you through to Ballarat or Melbourne – and we absolutely need to sweat that asset and get more people using it. 

“There is a huge opportunity here to continue to expand aged care, healthcare and become a real centre for the region.” 

Mr Benjamin said education and training could support people to improve outcomes for themselves, their families and the broader community. 

He pointed to Federation University, which has a research hub in Ararat and campuses in Horsham and Ballarat, as a recognised supporter of first-in-family attendees to tertiary education to offer pathways for Ararat people to learn new skills. 

He said careers in Ararat’s construction industry — currently about half the size of the rest of Victoria — could help ease the region’s housing shortages while also influencing significant population and economic growth. 

“Federation has the best rankings for first-in-family attendance of any university in the country. That’s taking families who haven’t been able to engage with tertiary education, building some support around them, and allowing that student to come into tertiary education to improve their life’s outcomes,” he said. 

“So we talk about that two percent unemployment and that five percent disengagement of youth – that’s how we do it. We educate these kids, we support them, and we allow them to become productive members of our community – and we have a university here that happens to be the envy of the nation to be able to do that. 

“In latest rankings, Federation also has the best employment outcomes.” 

Mr Benjamin said Ararat’s agriculture sector represented 14 percent of the wealth generated in the region — its strongest sector, and double that of the statewide rate of seven percent — but 98 percent of agriculture product was exported, posing food manufacturing as a major opportunity. 

He said the region was well-positioned to benefit from tourism in the Grampians region — including its forecast 100,000 visitors a year, enhanced by its growing brand, natural assets and the 160-kilometre Grampians Peaks Trail; while renewable energy was a ‘no-brainer’, with projects worth $20-billion seeking to invest in the region.   

The entire November 8, 2023 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!