The City of Fremantle is entering a period of transformation as the state government’s proposed local council amalgamations will likely see the port city’s population double to 64,000. The City of Fremantle will encompass East Fremantle, parts of Melville and Cockburn as well as Rottnest Island once the amalgamations take effect in July 2015.

These changes are occurring as Fremantle begins to emerge from a period of stagnation in terms of growth and development. Employment prospects have been drying up and CBD vacancy rates have continued to climb over the past decade or more. While Fremantle has long been a magnet for the cultural and the quirky, the long term viability of the city is at stake now as jobs in the hospital and port sector dwindle.

With the increasing containerisation of the port, jobs have decreased and long term prospects for future employment are slim. Further to this, the other major employer in the area – Fremantle Hospital – will lose 1900 jobs this year due to the closure of the emergency department and the relocation of many jobs to the new Fiona Stanley Hospital precinct.

The loss of jobs in Fremantle is a blow to the local economy given people that work in the area tend to recreate and spend money at local businesses. Not to mention the visitors that businesses attract to the area. The rise in vacant commercial property is a sign of the times with many shops including Betts, Jay Jays, Susan’s and of course Myer closing their doors in the last 12 months. In order to reduce the number of vacant commercial properties, the local council attempted to implement a significant rate increase targeted at vacant CBD property. This move was labelled by the State Administrative Tribunal as illegal, however is representative of the need for Fremantle to think strategically about its future.

ABC 720 recently spent a day broadcasting from Fremantle and interviewed a number of business owners about how they were fairing. Many said that business had significantly quietened down in the last few years and many were struggling to remain viable. A worrying trend that may see further exits from Fremantle if something isn’t done soon.

Another iconic group leaving the city is the Fremantle Dockers Football Club, who will move out of their home at Fremantle oval to take up residence at new premises in the City of Cockburn next year. So why has Fremantle faced this downward momentum in recent years?

What Fremantle has severely lacked in previous years is a comprehensive plan that harnesses the potential of the area and provides foresight into the future needs of the region. Planning regulations have stymied development and limited growth causing a situation where an area so suited to being a vibrant cultural and commercial hub has slowly deteriorated.

Now is a time when that future planning must be undertaken. Many businesses and local council representatives have come out in recent months to tout the potential for Fremantle to become a buzzing hub once again as commercial investment starts to pick up in the area. Mayor Brad Pettit has gone as far as to compare the current opportunities for Fremantle to those brought by the America’s Cup in the 1980s.

There are a number of new developments in the pipeline along with a research project lead by Committee for Perth which aims to provide solid answers as to how Fremantle can best harness its potential. The ‘Future Freo’ project is a joint initiative between the Committee for Perth, University of Western Australia, Notre Dame, City of Fremantle, Fremantle Ports and major business partners including Match and Sirona Capital. The research project will assess Fremantle’s economic, social and demographic character and will identify the areas strengths and weaknesses. The hope is that the report will provide a clear direction for Fremantle which is practical and achievable.

In terms of future development, there are a number of areas that are earmarked for much needed rejuvenation over the coming years including the iconic Kings Square. The location of the former Myer building along with surrounding property such as Queensgate buildings and car park has been the subject of major plans for redevelopment by Sirona Capitol in partnership with the City of Fremantle. The recently approved $220million project will deliver 30,000sqm of office space and 12,000sqm of retail. The developers are targeting the state government to move one or more departments to the location in order to fill the space and also bring much needed employment back to the City. The Barnett government made a commitment to relocate government departments out of the CBD at the last election. A promise that he is under pressure to deliver on, particularly following the hospital closure.

Hopefully the Committee for Perth report and developments such as Kings Square will be a catalyst for Fremantle’s rebirth. This will lead to excellent opportunities for investment in property and other businesses in the locality. One area that will require attention is public transport to the City. A mix of bus and rail options that provide links from various locations including Murdoch, Cockburn Central and the City are needed to efficiently service the area.

A joint approach to planning for Fremantle’s future will see positive development moving forward.