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Centauri Property Group

Seize the day

Centauri Property Group sees the resources boom as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build a sustainable tourism industry for Australia’s North West

There’s a very particular reason why Centauri Property Group was established three years ago in the North West of Australia. Although not a junior miner or services supplier, the investment management firm is likewise an offspring of the resources boom caused primarily by China’s demand for minerals and oil and gas commodities, of which Australia – the north-western Pilbara region in particular – has plenty.

Recognising that this period of frantic mining and rapid economic growth will not last forever, Centauri’s founders set out to grab a piece of the action. Their goal was to take advantage of the various opportunities this boom created in the infrastructure, accommodation, travel and tourism sectors. Three years later, Centauri has swelled from just three people to almost 50; but project manager Drew Searle affirms the company’s goal remains the same.

“Our primary goal is to create value for shareholders in the company’s various investment funds, by finding opportunities to undertake and deliver projects that meet the needs of the resources sector,” he says. “We aim to identify opportunities where the expansion of the resources sector is creating significant demand that is not being met by resources companies, because it is not part of their core business operations.”

Cool in a crisis

One area of “significant demand” is accommodation, which is in desperately short supply despite so many major mining companies having workers to house. In this critical housing shortage – while acknowledging that it’s a major impediment to growth in the Pilbara – Centauri sees a golden opportunity.

“The housing shortage is essentially creating opportunity for us to deliver projects that will provide accommodation to both resources companies and tourists,” Searle explains. “For example, we are using the premise of supplying high-quality accommodation to major mining companies for several years to leverage the development of our major resort hotel The Landing, which we see becoming a critical part of the tourism infrastructure of the North West.

“So while currently supporting the resources industry, the long-term focus for our development is helping to incubate and grow a sustainable tourism industry in an underserviced part of Australia,” he continues. “You could say we’re using the current housing shortage to help build a more sustainable economy, through the development of a better tourism industry. One of our core principles is sustainability and we are following a strategy of ensuring that the current resources boom leaves a long-term legacy for Western Australia.”

The Landing is just one of three major developments planned for the large accommodation site Centauri has bought opposite Port Hedland International Airport (PHIA). The $150m resort hotel will sit alongside two more places to be redeveloped by Centauri: the Port Tourist Park caravan site and the BP Truckstop refuelling facility on the Great Northern Highway.

Landing on its feet

When The Landing opens in mid-2013 it promises to be just as impressive as it is useful. The carbon-neutral, 648-room resort will include a five-storey, five-star hotel, as well as a village of two-storey apartment blocks. The hotel will comprise two six-storey towers situated around linked outdoor activity areas, including a resort lagoon and lap pool. Most rooms in the North Tower and village will be reserved for transitional anchor tenants in the resources infrastructure industry, whereas the 122-room South Tower will be exclusively for tourists.

Construction of the North Tower and village began in June and the second stage of the project, in which the South Tower will be built, is scheduled to begin in August. There may well be more to come: Centauri is waiting on approval from the state government and the Town of Port Hedland (TOPH) for an additional 352 rooms – which would bring the total number to 1,000 – and an underground link beneath the Great Northern Highway to connect The Landing to PHIA. Assisting in the development is The Cardno Group, a “valued supplier” to Centauri.

Searle says the project’s location in Australia’s North West, where there’s “huge demand for people, materials, transport and all the other key inputs into development”, makes it especially challenging. “Centauri is solving many of these problems by using pre-fabricated and modular construction methods, which allow large parts of the hotel to be manufactured elsewhere in Australia and delivered to site for final assembly,” he says. “The techniques involved are innovative and will allow rapid construction over the next 12 months.”

Driving up tourism

Port Tourist Park, sitting adjacent to The Landing, is being redeveloped to create 150 caravan sites for tourists and 50 for long-term residents. Other facilities located there will include recreational areas, a café and a swimming pool. Its target is to service the already established “driving holiday” market, which Searle says “has been forced to bypass the Pilbara region in recent years as all the available accommodation has been taken up by the resources industry”.

The park will provide a cheaper alternative to staying in a hotel, making it an important part of Centauri’s strategy. “The success of any tourism strategy relies upon having available accommodation at a range of price points to suit the needs of different visitors,” Searle says. “The redeveloped Port Tourist Park will support the other long-term tourist accommodation options – five star and two star – that are being developed at The Landing.”

Searle adds that Centauri’s “tourism incubation strategy”, currently in development and soon to be implemented, includes input from tourism stakeholders such as Tourism Western Australia, Australia’s North West and the TOPH.

Orient express

Looking further ahead, Centauri wants to help redevelop PHIA to “meet the modern needs of the community of Port Hedland and the Pilbara”. In collaboration with international engineering and construction company Laing O’Rourke, Centauri is proposing the North West Intermodal Hub (NWIH) concept as a way of enhancing the area’s connection to Asia – something Centauri sees as very important, due to the resource sector’s strong links with China, Japan and Korea.

“The objective is to create a new gateway between Asia and Australia that employs the proven ‘hub and spoke’ approach to air freight and passenger transport, to reframe the economy of the North West and Western Australia,” Searle explains. “For the first time, significant volumes of freight and numbers of people will be able to arrive direct in the North West for distribution or connection to other regional centres.

Alternatively, freight and passengers will be able to pass through the North West on a more direct route between major Asian and Australian cities.”

Searle says the NWIH concept – based on successful intermodal hub projects in Singapore, Dubai and Qatar – is necessary because, in its current form, PHIA is constraining the region’s economic activity. “It does not have the capacity to meet current or projected growth rates for passengers, let alone handle significant freight,” he argues.

“The cost of inaction on the airport is considerable in terms of restricting development and hindering productivity. We believe the NWIH concept not only solves and addresses current and future capacity issues, but also lifts the potential of the airport to a new level by creating a sustainable new industry for Port Hedland and the Pilbara.

“There has been huge interest in the concept and we are undertaking discussions with a wide range of stakeholders at local, state and national levels,” Searle adds.

Creating a sustainable economy

With its projects’ planning and approval stages now drawing to a close, Centauri has a very busy delivery schedule ahead. It aims to have all 648 rooms in The Landing completed during 2013, as well as its Port Tourist Park redevelopment underway. The company will continue to progress the NWIH concept and present the TOPH with a proposal to build additional accommodation within the airport precinct.

“In addition, we will be focusing on developing a tourism strategy for Port Hedland and the Pilbara as part of our commitment to incubating and growing a significant tourism industry over the next decade,” Searle says.

Centauri’s projects may all be at an early stage of development, but Searle believes the company has already demonstrated how the resources boom can be used to develop a sustainable non-resources economy in the North West.

“I believe that in five years we will be able to point at The Landing as one of the major catalysts in creating a burgeoning Pilbara tourism industry,” he says. “And if we are able to create a North West Intermodal Hub, it will not only deliver a significant transport asset for the Pilbara, but also help to transform the economy of Port Hedland itself.”

Centauri’s ambitions are great, but it’s the perfect time to see them fulfilled. Opportunity knocks but once.