North Stradbroke Island on knife-edge as it readies for tourism to replace mining

One of south-east Queensland's jewels, North Stradbroke Island, teeters on an uncertain future with mining giant Sibelco leaving the island in 2019.

Sibelco this week said it still employed 115 people at its North Stradbroke Island mines.

Of these, 70 live on North Stradbroke Island. That is more than half of the 131 permanent residents on the island according to the 2016 Census.

Redland City Council's data however says in 2016 there were 2102 residents in 1863 dwellings, based on three counts.

The question remains: Is the island economy ready for tourism to replace mining? Or is it facing economic disaster?

In 2010, former Labor premier Anna Bligh announced North Stradbroke Island's sand mining would progressively phase out from 2019 until 2027.

In 2012, Campbell Newman's LNP government then extended Sibelco's sand-mining leases back to 2035.

In May 2016, Annastacia Palaszczuk then axed Sibelco's 2035 mining leases and won support to again end sand mining on North Stradbroke Island by 2019.

The LNP will soon make a major announcement about the future of the island.

It will be an immediate test of the ALP's $20 million economic transition plan for North Stradbroke Island - or Minjerribah - which has identified 23 projects. Only one of these is completed.

Several others have first-stage funding at Dunwich and the island's camping grounds have been upgraded. Five new rangers have been employed.

North Stradbroke Island's Sibelco mines provide $5 million in mine royalties to the Queensland government and between $62 million and $86 million to the local economy, according to Deloitte Access Economics.

The LNP declined to answer questions from Fairfax Media this week if it intends to again extend sand mining on North Stradbroke Island.

"The LNP will release a comprehensive plan about North Stradbroke Island next week," a spokesman said on Friday.

"But that's all we will say."

Redlands City Council is nervous it will be left holding North Stradbroke Island's future when Sibelco leaves.

Mayor Karen Williams warned Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk in a letter in May 2017 the island faced "economic disaster" and recommended an extra $110 million over three years.

"While we accept the government has made an initial financial contribution in order to support projects it believes will fill the social and economic void left by the exit of the mining company, we believe there is a need for urgent discussion about whether these projects are sufficient to prevent an economic crisis," Mayor Williams wrote on May 5.

"To avoid an economic disaster, Straddie needs proper planning and investment immediately," she said.

This week, Mayor Williams identified rising barge and ferry fares to North Stradbroke Island as mine staff stopped work and trucks and cars stopped catching the barges.

"What we really want to see is something on the ground so that community which has seen six years of uncertainty with mining ???on' and mining ???off', actually sees the investment that is required to transition out of that (sand mining) economy."

Sibelco's chief executive officer Tom Cutbush says they are committed to moving off North Stradbroke Island by 2019 and say they have not spoken to the LNP prior to the 2017 election.

In 2012, Sibelco backed Mr Newman's campaign in Ashgrove to win a place in state parliament against now-Education Minister Kate Jones.

"Sibelco has not been in any conversations with the LNP since the Government's legislation of the 2019 exit date," Mr Cutbush said.

"We do, however, maintain our long-held position that 24 months from now is too early."

Mr Cutbush said the company was still concerned about its workers.

"The government-sponsored employment support has not yet fully materialized," he said.

The government is confident it has done enough for North Stradbroke Island to shift from sand to tourism, according to a spokeswoman for State Development Minister Anthony Lynham.

"The Palaszczuk Government has committed $20 million to transition North Stradbroke Island's economy to a more sustainable and diverse industry base as sand mining is phased out," a statement read.

"This initial financial injection by the Palaszczuk government aims to stimulate economic opportunities and facilitate stakeholder co-investment.

"The long-term objective is to increase economic activity and employment in sectors where North Stradbroke Island already has a competitive advantage - tourism and education and training - and grow local businesses."

Things are starting. Slowly.

North Stradbroke Island's Quandamooka people have been given an exclusive whale-watching permit. Planning, but not construction, is underway for a new port at Dunwich. A survey of passengers about ferries will be carried out before Christmas. There are reports being prepared for an Indigenous cultural centre on North Stradbroke Island (Minjerribah).

But new ecotourism ventures are still "desktop studies" and plans to boost new businesses are still contracts to be awarded.

Colin Battersby runs a tourism business on Straddie and chairs North Stradbroke Island's Economic Transition Study.

"I mean putting this together with the wheels of government has been a little slow to get moving, but I think now there are some projects where the rubber is starting to hit the road."

He doubts the island will automatically replace the $62 million to $86 million from sand mining by 2019.

"So, will we be able to replace the stability of sand mining on Straddie with tourism in 18 months?" he said.

"No, that's unlikely. It will take longer, much longer," he said.

And he said the $20 million for Straddie's economic transformation was too little.

"That is well under-funded. Well under-funded." he said.

"And that has a whole heap of issues around it.

"And one of the big ones is that the Council, the Redland City Council is going to be left holding the baby on this; the walking trails and that sort of thing.

"It is one thing to plan some things and get some things built, but ongoing ??? it's the ratepayers who are going to be paying for it."

Businesses do want to move onto North Stradbroke Island, according to Chris Earle from the Ray White Commercial Bayside team.

"Weve got some new foodies that are looking at the island and looking to take adavantage of it," he said.

It is not the big chain stores, Mr Earle says, but the smaller independent businesses.

"For the big chains; their method of acquisition, the island isn't ticking all the boxes just yet."

"But within a couple of years, I think that demographic will change.

"Put it this way, no one is running for the hills just yet.

This story North Stradbroke Island on knife-edge as it readies for tourism to replace mining first appeared on Brisbane Times.