Myth-busting Wollongong: What it’s really like to live and work in the coastal city
Blessed with beautiful beaches, a top-ranking university and a thriving arts scene, Wollongong is easily one of Australia’s most liveable cities. It’s also a great place to do business, thanks to a skilled workforce, low overheads and excellent infrastructure. But, if you’re not from around here, or you haven’t popped in for a while, you might not be up to speed with what makes this vibrant coastal city an hour south of Sydney so appealing. Allow us to set the record straight.
Fact: Wollongong’s cultural scene is booming
Small bars and cafes, art galleries, zeitgeist-y music festivals – nope, we’re not talking about Sydney or Melbourne. This is Wollongong, where the arts are thriving and the local small bar scene is keeping pace.
Some of the city’s greatest exports are arguably its creatives, including actor and singer Natalie Bassingthwaite, violinist Richard Tognetti, and acclaimed painter Paul Ryan. Joining that list is emerging artist Christopher Zanko, who was a finalist in 2019’s Wynne Prize and is known for his nostalgic depictions of the local architecture.
Chris, who grew up in the area, has no plans to leave Wollongong. He says the regional city has a lot to offer culturally. “It definitely holds its own against Sydney or Melbourne,” he says. “It’s multifaceted – there’s small bars and galleries, and big events like the Yours and Owls festival.”
Among his favourite picks is the Wollongong Art Gallery: “They have really high-quality contemporary art exhibitions happening all the time, and they have a really extensive and wonderful art collection of their own, which spans back to the late 1800s through to really contemporary art now,” Chris explains.
If the stage is more your style, the Merrigong Theatre Company hosts top performing arts companies and creates its own productions, with a lively program of events across the year, ranging from comedy to cabaret.
Foodies are well served, too. In fact, there are so many small bars, cafes and restaurants in the Wollongong CBD that you’ll have trouble picking a favourite.
Suzanne Haddon, founder of branding and design agency Rooland, is originally from Seattle, has lived in San Francisco and LA and loves Wollongong’s vibrant food culture. “Wollongong’s got some great restaurants and there’s always some new bars popping up that everyone’s talking about,” she says. “We go out probably once or twice a week just for fun and we’ll find some really cool eateries that we love. I find Wollongong’s got everything you need that way.”
Fact: It’s closer to Sydney than you think
If you’re worried that Wollongong is too far from Sydney, consider this: it takes just 60 minutes to reach the airport and 90 minutes to hit the CBD by car – quicker than some Sydneysiders’ daily commute! That makes it easy to organise business meetings, travel around the country or overseas (post-COVID of course), visit clients, or drop into your company’s HQ when needed.
The convenient access to Sydney – without sacrificing work-life balance – is one of the reasons many Wollongong-based executives love their regional home. “I have a couple of clients in Sydney and I take the train up to see them once or twice a month,” says Suzanne. “It’s quite easy, and then when I come back, I’m like, ‘ah, I love being back in Wollongong’.”
For Martin Braithwaite, General Manager – Business Transformation, Managed Services of global ICT solutions and services company NEC Australia, Wollongong’s close proximity to Sydney was the clincher when it came to choosing a location for its major services hub. “Sydney’s not a competitor to us, it’s a complement to us,” he explains. “Being a global company we have centres in every capital city. We have our NSW headquarters in Sydney, so it’s close enough for me to travel up there and back. Also, an international airport is only an hour away. Those are the sorts of things that really came to mind when we looked at Wollongong.”
Fact: There’s plenty of entertainment for families
Yes, there’s lots to do in a big city – but there’s also queues, congestion and traffic. In Wollongong and the greater Illawarra, you’ll find entertainment and activities for families of all ages, without the inconvenience of large crowds or the long slog through snail-pace traffic. Here’s some fun ideas to get you started:
- Kids (and grown-ups) will love the thrilling water slides at Jamberoo Action Park
- Explore the beautiful Illawarra Escarpment by hiking the Forest Walk to Sublime Point Track, starting at Austinmer or Coalcliff
- Get your hands on locally grown produce at the Friday Foragers Market in the Wollongong CBD
- Enjoy the hip small bars and cafes in Wollongong’s CBD and coastal suburbs such as Thirroul, Austinmer and Port Kembla
- Help littlies learn about beach safety and have fun by enrolling them in Nippers
- Pick your own fruit, pick up local honey and sample ciders and mead at Glenbernie Orchard in Darkes Forest
Best of all, because Wollongong is a compact city, its short commutes allow busy executives and entrepreneurs to enjoy more quality time with their families. “Here, you can finish work at 5pm or 5.30pm and you’ve got a lot more time – you’re not tired,” says Suzanne.
“People talk about work-life balance – it’s more than that here, it’s family-work balance, in that order,” adds Nick Muldoon from tech start-up Easy Agile.
Fact: There’s a rich local talent pool to draw from
Good news: you won’t have to look far if you need to bolster your skilled workforce. Thanks to the world-class University of Wollongong, the city boasts a fantastic and varied talent pool, with many graduates keen to stay in the area.
The university is particularly industry-focused, proactively engaging with the local business community via its Innovation Campus and entrepreneurial community Ideas Network. Suzanne, whose Rooland office operates out of the Innovation Campus, loves the interaction between the university and local businesses. “A great advantage of being a business in Wollongong is being able to get interns that are actually qualified and educated,” she explains. “We get interns every quarter from the university and being in the Innovation Campus you meet a lot of students as well. There’s a lot of collaboration there.”
Beyond the university, there are 23,000 skilled professionals currently commuting from Wollongong to Sydney for work. As more businesses open in the region, they’ll have more opportunities to keep their work – and talents – local.
Plus, the easy lifestyle, short commute times and family-friendly amenities mean that staff turnover rates here are half the national average, according to research by Fifth Quadrant.
Fact: There’s quality public infrastructure
It’s often easy to dismiss regional areas as lagging on the infrastructure needed to support modern businesses. But, not only does Wollongong offer excellent infrastructure right now, it’s also innovating infrastructure solutions for the future.
Those working in STEM businesses are well served by the NBN in Wollongong. “As a tech company, we need our bandwidth” confirms NEC’s Martin Braithwaite. “There’s very good NBN infrastructure here.”
Transport links, such as the South Coast train line connecting Wollongong to the Sydney CBD, and Shellharbour Airport just 20 minutes south of the Wollongong CBD, which offers daily flights to Brisbane and Melbourne. There is also the free ‘Gong Shuttle’ connecting the Wollongong CBD, UOW and suburbs of Northern Wollongong, Fairy Meadow and Gwynneville.
Wollongong is also connected to the National Freight Network, for those businesses that require freight rail services.
Families will be happy to know that the region supports two major hospitals, aged care facilities and a raft of health specialists, including audiologists, dietitians, podiatrists, exercise physiologists and occupational therapists.
Access to quality education was a must for Suzanne when she and her family moved to the region. “At the time, our son was going into year seven and we really wanted the best for him – and we wanted him to go to uni,” she explains. “We looked around and Wollongong had the university there, and it had great surf! He’s now studying engineering at the university, so we’re happy.”
Wollongong also offers a huge range of public, private and denominational primary and high schools, as well as a network of local TAFE college campuses.
As for that eye on the future? The University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility is one of the world’s largest research institutions in the world, focused on helping governments and businesses plan for the challenges of tomorrow.