The Murray River ambles slowly between the twin cities of Albury and Wodonga, demarcating the battle lines between New South Wales and Victoria.
And while the two states may enjoy a friendly rivalry, the twin cities are getting along swimmingly, chalking up solid migration and a slew of investment in the region as a lifestyle destination.
Albury was recently capped Wotif’s top town to visit in 2023, for its slower pace at the doorstep to wine country, the Murray River and ski fields.
And the regional hub is shaking off its pit-stop identity on the road between Sydney and Melbourne to become a bonafide destination, capturing the attention of foodies for its high-end restaurants, whisky and wine bars, and cultural experiences.
Albury’s first watering hole opened its doors in 1840–and hotelier Peter Griffiths is carrying on the city’s love affair with a cold beer and community.
Griffiths spearheaded the reinvigoration of the run-down Astor Hotel Motel (featured in the main image) in Albury’s Young Street.
Griffiths says he had bought another Astor at Goulburn and knew that there would be good bones to the rundown sister asset.
“We came down in 2019 when we purchased The Astor in Albury. There was a guy who built 17 hotel-motels, all called The Astor, in the 1960s, and then he went broke,” Griffiths says.
“There are three left, at Goulburn, Wagga and Albury.
“We engaged Melbourne-based architects Techne (who have now opened a studio in Albury) to give the hotel an uplift. They did an amazing job and the hotel has never looked back.”
Griffiths says they were able to remove layers of detritus to reveal the modernist design of the 60s and restore it to create an iconic destination for travellers and locals. It can also be hired out as the perfect backdrop for a photoshoot.
“We’ve refurbished 1000sq m of space. The next stage of that is we’re looking to build on our 45 rooms here on the motel side. The rooms don’t reflect the finish or the quality that people are accustomed to now in the pub.
“We have acquired land behind the hotel and we are looking at doing 40 boutique rooms. It’s quite a sophisticated market and we were surprised at the volume of our occupancy after the renovation works.
“When we first took it on we were doing $150,000 in room revenue. We’re forecast to do $2 million this financial year. It’s a stopover point for people travelling from Melbourne, but it’s also a strong regional city for education, transport and tourism.”
Griffiths says his next venture is Kinross Hotel at Thurgoona, a residential growth area on Albury’s outskirts, which he acquired in November last year and plans to invest “many millions” in.
“What we try and do is pick up regional hotels that are struggling, and develop the upside,” he says.
The Kinross Hotel includes the 1890s woolsheds from the former Kinross Station, which were moved to the site in 1988. Many of the music industry’s biggest stars have performed at the Kinross including international 1980s stars Belinda Carlisle and Rick Astley as well as Australian acts including Jimmy Barnes, Vanessa Amorosi, Diesel, The Whitlams and Lisa Mitchell.
Specialist hospitality architects Techne are tackling the project with a view to creating another destination pub with capacity to accommodate festivals and community events on the expansive site.
Techne director Nick Travers said the architecture firm recently set up a satellite studio in Albury to capitalise on the opportunity in the regional hub.
“It was a destination pub, but now it’s surrounded by about 10,000 houses,” Travers says.
“I think the reinvigoration of regional places is a real positive out of Covid lockdowns and the bump in domestic tourism.
“When Peter bought the Astor in Albury he recognised it as an undervalued asset, and realised that there’s a lot of pubs that no one historically has put a creative lens on, and that he could reimagine these pubs.”
Techne recently opened its Albury studio with Dana Hutchins as the lead. Travers says they had taken on a few projects in the area, including Beechworth, and they had been “pin-wheeling around Albury”.
“We had ambitions to open a branch studio, I didn’t exactly think it would be Albury. I’m really pleased with it, it’s turning out to be a really great market for us,” he says.
Techne is applying its placemaking hospitality architecture and interiors expertise, showcased in the likes of The Espy at St Kilda and Garden State in Melbourne’s CBD, to other regional offerings including Billson's Brewery in Beechworth and All Saints Estate winery in Rutherglen.
Travers says it’s about creating design-and-experience-led projects that cater to both the local community, while also driving inbound tourism and local visitation.
The region, originally home to a migration centre after World War II, is now on the charm offensive, luring would-be residents with a below-average median house price, a knowledge economy, a university campus, a train line connecting the region to Melbourne, and a proposed $558-million redevelopment of Albury's base hospital.
Albury Wodonga is now home to about 100,000 people and is listed as Australia’s 20th largest city. It was the focus of intense investment in the early 1970s when the Whitlam federal government identified it as a growth area to decentralise Australia’s capital cities. This was later abandoned.
But the reopening of borders and beefed up net overseas migration figures are sure to flow through to major regional cities, which remain robust housing and investment markets.
The median house price in Albury is $610,000, well below the New South Wales average of $725,000. Its rental vacancy is also relatively low at 1.4 per cent as of April this year with a forecast annual population growth of 1.3 per cent to 2036.
A feasibility study is under way on the former Albury Council depot site, which is slated for redevelopment as an in-fill greenfield site and could be home to “hundreds” of residents on the 1.8ha site.
The Albury Entertainment Centre is in line for a $30-million expansion, 305km of existing rail corridor between metropolitan Melbourne and the Victoria-NSW border at Albury Wodonga is being upgraded,
On the Wodonga side of the Murray, Aspen is expanding its retirement living portfolio with a $60-million, 173-unit development, and a $45-million, 104-bed private hospital has been proposed.
While it may be a tale of two cities, it’s clear that collectively the region is developing some pulling power.
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