A tale of one city — and one town — in the Pilbara
There is a welcome to country sung in the Pilbara which reminds people that, for thousands of years, the banks of the Peawah River have featured as a great divide. To the east is the home of the Kariyarra. To the west, Ngarluma ngurra.
In recent times, that divide has been manifested in the towns built on these lands.
Five years ago, former Pilbara MLA Brendon Grylls declared Karratha the first city of the north.
It was a milestone moment for the $1.7 billion Pilbara Cities plan to transform the region into a place worth calling home.
In the five years since, Karratha has undergone a facelift so dramatic those who haven’t visited this decade would not recognise it.
Two hours up the road, however, a different story has unfolded.
What has been forgotten in Mr Grylls’ speech were his final words, in which he told the crowd he was hopeful of declaring Port Hedland a city too by year’s end.
That never happened, and the gulf between the two towns has become hard to ignore.
Mr Grylls declined our request to take part in this story.
Five years a city
Manicured main streets, glitzy multi-storey buildings, and striking public facilities. There is a largesse in the way Karratha has developed over the past decade.
Stuart Otto has seen his home of 31 years turn into a place he believes young families would be happy to move to.
“In years gone by, to entertain our children we had camping and fishing,” he said.
“Not that it’s not still camping and fishing, but they also have the Leisureplex and other things they can go to.
“I can’t believe how fast the trees are growing, and everybody’s kind of accepting what’s happening.”
Population in the City of Karratha has declined since 2013 when the resources boom hit its peak, but long-term trends show it remains on a modest growth path.
The City counts mining, oil and gas, and downstream processing among its industry base and, with a raft of new projects in the pipeline, there is a sense of optimism among its 22,000 residents.
“Karratha’s been fortunate, undoubtedly, in its location and its resources and its diversity,” Mayor Peter Long said.
“The change is incredible, on a State basis or even an Australia-wide basis. What other towns have changed so much in the past decade?
“One of the reasons I think (new industry) is coming to Karratha is the fact that we already have the diverse primary industry with oil and gas and salt and iron ore, but it’s also a lovely place to live.
“We have done our best to make this town as pleasant as possible by investing in so much infrastructure.”
This is a sentiment WA Nationals leader Mia Davies shares.
“As a family with young kids, previously it would have been pretty challenging to live in the Pilbara,” she said.
“I now talk to people who say they moved to Karratha and they won’t leave, they love it and in fact their parents are moving to Karratha.”
It has not been all smooth sailing for the City, though.
Residents of the Pilbara’s historic heart, Roebourne, still feel abandoned five years on from the decision to remove their town from the local government name.
“You go to Karratha and it’s just all lovely and clean, there’s lots of nice plants,” Roebourne stalwart Ruth Ellis said. “The aesthetics of it is really lifted up.”
“But poor old Roebourne...being on the main highway around Australia, it really should be looked after, and a lot better.
“If you ask most Roebournites, we feel hurt with what’s going on and what’s happened over the past five years.”
Mr Long disputes the assertion Roebourne has been forgotten, claiming more money is spent per person in the old town than in Karratha.
Diamond in the dust
Those living east of the Peawah River could be forgiven for not sharing the same glowing assessment of Pilbara Cities as Karratha’s leaders.
In the past 20 years, Karratha’s population has grown at almost five times the rate of Port Hedland’s.
For every $1 of Pilbara Cities money spent in Port Hedland, $3 was spent in the City of Karratha.
“We were not prepared for it,” Port Hedland Mayor Camilo Blanco said.
“I can’t give you the answers as to why we weren’t prepared, all I know is we had a lot of half-done plans sitting on shelves that weren’t actually put together into a strategic document that we could present to government.”
Pilbara MLA Kevin Michel pointed to the approach to working with each other and the State Government as an area Hedland needed to work on.
“Engagement is one thing I can put my finger on,” he said.
“In regards to the City of Karratha, I have constant meetings with the mayor, councillors, industry and a whole range of people always coming up with fantastic ideas.
“I used to have a business in Port Hedland and even in that I noticed the engagement was less compared to Karratha.”
Hedland residents backed Mr Michel at the 2017 State Election, handing Labor 34 per cent of the primary vote.
The Karratha-based MP is confident Port Hedland will one day complete the Pilbara’s twin cities vision.
“Hopefully the marina will be built and it will be a game-changer for Port Hedland,” he said.
“By right they should have been the first city, but at the end of the day it all depends on who jumps the gun first.”
Mr Blanco believes with a strategic plan in place and money in the bank, Port Hedland is ready for a makeover.
First that means tackling the town’s two most visible issues: crime and infrastructure.
“All our current assets are at end of life, so operational costs falling on us at the moment just to maintain these assets is considerable,” he said.
“Antisocial issues, excessive alcohol consumption, housing issues we have within the community — it doesn’t matter what program or initiative you put forward, it is shot down by minority groups.
“It’s a multi-faceted problem that has been neglected by multiple State governments.”
Despite its problems, there was a heart in Hedland, Mr Blanco said — a real sense of community he believes the town’s glitzy neighbour west of the Peawah is yet to replicate.
Ms Davies said criticism of the lopsided spend between Hedland and Karratha under Pilbara Cities was unfair.
“It is probably an unfair expectation to think it was all going to be done in one go,” she said.
“Port Hedland is a significant community and they should rightly expect continuing efforts to make sure it is a great place to live.”
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