Armidale's capital territory

As Canberra pans APVMA move plan, Armidale rolls out the welcome mat


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New England MP Barnaby Joyce announcing Armidale as the new location of the APVMA.

New England MP Barnaby Joyce announcing Armidale as the new location of the APVMA.

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Armidale is preparing to welcome pesticides authority staff in the coming years, despite accusations of pork barrelling, politicking and opposition from workers.

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The smell of roasted coffee beans wafted through the screen door as lycra-clad cyclists, retirees and students filed into the cafe.

A pun-laden sign on the footpath outside lured visitors in to scrutinise a chalkboard-style wall menu that listed wood-fired muesli, plenty of avocado and the coffee blend of the week.

The scene could have been ripped straight from the main streets of Canberra's trendy inner suburbs, but actually played out almost 600km to the north.

It is part of an image Armidale's advocates want to promote to Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority staff caught up in the forced relocation of the agency from the capital to "Australia's Highest City".

Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, whose New England electorate includes Armidale, pledged to move the APVMA to the 23,000-strong Northern Tablelands city if the Coalition won the election.

Win the election the Coalition did, setting the stage for the authority's $26.5 million relocation to the NSW northern tablelands town and inviting criticism and accusations of pork barrelling from Labor, unions and industry lobby groups.

Amidst this criticism, the big hitters in the city locals affectionately refer to as "Farmidale" are doing what they can to shake off popular images of a "hick town" deprived of Canberra's comforts.

Armidale's 160-year-old newspaper, Fairfax Media's The Armidale Express, led the charge against national publications "making fun of our city" as a rural backwater after the relocation was confirmed.

"While some of it is amusing and entertaining, it does leave us wondering how many of the commentators have actually visited our community recently," the bi-weekly paper's November 30 editorial said under the headline "APVMA will be a welcome addition to city".

"We say well done to the federal government, for recognising what our city has to offer. They can see the potential, as well as we can."

The news was similarly greeted on the University of New England's sprawling campus on the city's western outskirts.

"This decision presents our institution with the potential for new industry, research and educational partnerships," vice-chancellor Annabelle Duncan said.

"The long-term economic benefits of the move for the region are also substantial."

Yet the promise of the APVMA's move did not translate to a swing in votes in Armidale. Although he won on first preferences in half of the six polling booths in the city on first preferences, Mr Joyce lost in all two-candidate preferred results to rival Tony Windsor.

A walk through the city's central Beardy Street Mall, onto which Mr Joyce's electoral office fronted, found the town's residents generally agreed the move was good for Armidale, but the degree to which it was backed varied.

The responses outside secondhand bookstores, art deco facades and the occasional "for lease" sign ranged from "I think Barnaby did a really good job with that one," to "I'll believe it when I see it".

A recurring concern, however, was voiced about the employment opportunities for partners of those moving to the city.

The AVPMA has considered offering up to 12 free return flights between Canberra and Armidale for workers who agree to move, but there are few public service jobs going in the city.

"We've always seen the partners issue as being the biggest, whether they're a public servant or tradesperson," Armidale Regional Council project manager Harold Ritch said.

Mr Ritch, who with colleague Tony Broomfield is providing the council's response to the transition, said improved economic development and projects were providing new employment opportunities across the city.

Several major projects are ongoing in the city, including a $10 million airport upgrade, a $60 million hospital redevelopment and the construction of TAFE NSW's new digital headquarters.

A 300MW solar farm has also been proposed near Armidale, which will complement the 10,000-panel array under construction at the University of New England.

Armidale's status as the first mainland city completely connected to the national broadband network, most of which was laid before the Coalition's change from a fibre-to-the-premises focus to fibre-to-the-node, nurtured a small IT industry, including ethical hacking company WHITEHACK.

As for the city's lifestyle drawcards, Mr Ritch listed a climate similar to Canberra's, access to national parks, a regional art gallery, resident symphony orchestra, conservatorium of music and a multitude of cafes.

Education employs almost a quarter of Armidale's population through the University of New England and 17 schools, including the boarding New England Girls School and The Armidale School.

Canberrans would need to swap the Raiders for the Rams, the Brumbies for any of the four rugby clubs based in the town, their AFL team for the New England Nomads, and their local cricket club for one of the eight senior or six junior teams.

Flights to Sydney ($176 return) and Brisbane ($298 return) run seven days a week, as does a train service to Sydney ($132.34 return).

For the beach holiday-minded, it takes just 27 minutes longer to drive from Armidale to Coffs Harbour than it does to travel from Canberra to Batemans Bay.

Mr Ritch said he first moved to the town 24 years ago, after intending to stay for a weekend.

"I believe it's one of the best-kept secrets in Australia, and now more than 100 Canberrans are going to find out," Mr Ritch said.

"The move's obviously going to be difficult on a whole number of levels, but I think when they do, they won't regret it."

The relocation is not expected to have a major impact on the city's housing affordability, according to Hutchinson and Harlow Real Estate director Peter Georkas.

The median house price was $350,000 in 2016, though historic Federation houses close to the central business district could fetch up to $1.3 million.

About 346 vacant rental properties and more than 400 homes for sale were on the market at year's end.

"You can purchase a brand new property, let's say four bedrooms, two garage spaces, for around the $490,000 to $525,000 range," Mr Georkas said.

"There's enough stock on the market that I can't see the market increasing in the short term if people are coming in batches of 30 or 50".

The city's visitors centre has offered welcome packs to all new residents, including service directories, guides for the nearby Oxley Wild Rivers and New England national parks and a list of clubs and societies.

While the city has laid out the welcome mat for the new arrivals, the federal government must now continue attempts to convince the authority's staff to relocate.

The story Armidale's capital territory first appeared on The Northern Daily Leader.

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