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Australians are backing flood-hit Lismore’s recovery

01:16pm February 28 2023

Heart sculpture in central Lismore. (Josh Wall)

One year on from the devastating floods in Lismore which destroyed businesses and left thousands without homes, Australians are helping the region to gradually get back on its feet. 

While the recovery is ongoing, visitor spending in the northern New South Wales city and surrounding region was up 8 per cent over the summer holiday season compared to the same period before the floods, according to Westpac DataX analytics. 

A breakdown of the de-identified commercial data shows spending on entertainment and recreation was up 44 per cent, dining and bars rose 18 per cent, while local grocery stores saw an 11 per cent increase. 

“Business was pretty good, we certainly had a good summer run,” said Nick Lake, owner of the Metropole Hotel in central Lismore, in an interview with Wire. 

“People recognize the scale of the disaster and there’s a willingness to help, to chip in by buying a beer or lunch somewhere or whatever it might be.” 

The Metropole was flooded in the deluge of February 2022, but Lake and his team managed to reopen a pop-up bar on the rooftop within 8 days, and the pub is now back to full operation.  

“Events in this region were deeply felt by the entire community and the recovery is most definitely ongoing, but despite cost-of-living pressures, visitors have come back to support the local community as the one-year anniversary approaches,” said Jade Clarke, head of Westpac DataX. 

“The data tells us there’s opportunity to further support these communities through sustained visitation, particularly outside of peak periods, while people get back on their feet,” Clarke said.

Westpac DataX, which was launched in June 2022, provides analytical insights backed by data assets derived from over 12 million customers and a network of third-party providers.

There’s no doubt that Lismore still has a long way to go on its rebuilding journey, and analytics from Westpac DataX last year gives a sense of the economic impact wrought by the floods.

Local resident spending in the flood-affected regions of northern NSW declined by 40 per cent on average in the immediate aftermath when compared with pre-flood levels, while merchant turnover dropped by 33 per cent. 

Resident spending rebounded relatively quickly as people were soon able to access goods from outside the flood affected area, but it has taken merchants much longer to recover, with many having to rebuild from scratch. 

The business occupancy rate in the Lismore CBD is now back up to 60 per cent, according to a study by the city council in January, rising from 38 per cent back in August. 

Nick Lake, owner of the Metropole Hotel in central Lismore. (Josh Wall)

It took Felicity Hyde, owner of the Scoops & Candy ice cream and lolly shop, three months to re-open following the floods, and her experience wasn’t unusual.

“Damage to buildings was the longer part of the process,” Hyde said in a phone interview. “In previous years, when there wasn’t so much destruction, you could just rinse out your shop and be back up and running in a few weeks.” 

Hyde said tourists who would normally stick to the nearby coastal towns of Byron Bay and Ballina were now making a point of visiting the city.

“We’ve also had people from Melbourne who endured a lot through COVID and wanted to come up and support Lismore. People had supported them through lockdown and they wanted to pay it back.”  

However, while support from visitors was important, Lake said that a sustained recovery would depend on getting those who live locally back into the CBD more often. 

"There’s still a lot of vacant shops and a lot of hard work ahead of us,” Lake said, “We’ve got to try and encourage more locals and those within the region to see Lismore as an option to come and spend their dollars and get the services they need.“

Westpac has been doing its bit to help flood-hit communities get back on their feet, setting up a $2 million fund to support small business customers. Lismore has received 122 grants from the fund totaling $363,000. The bank has also invested $1.3 million in a new co-located Westpac and St. George branch in the city. 

“The community is so resilient – it has come back from flood after flood over the town’s history, so I’m very confident there’s a good future ahead for Lismore,” Lake said.  

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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