He’s the self-confessed ‘rough diamond’ who’s polishing the Gold Coast economy with his entrepreneurial flair and enthusiastic spirit.
With his trademark ‘manglish’ delivery and propensity for dropping the odd f-bomb, Mayor Tom Tate is no silky-tongued pollie parroting well-rehearsed talking points. But that’s part of the charm for arguably the most flamboyant and successful mayor the Gold Coast has had since the golden era of Sir Bruce Small back in the ’70s.
Gloftis is hosting Mayor Tate and Ocean Road for lunch at his acclaimed Greek restaurant Hellenika at Nobby Beach. The lunch was to have been at Gloftis’s other eminent eatery, The Fish House at Burleigh Heads, but he has recently sold it in a reported multi-million dollar deal to move on to his next culinary challenge. Hellenika is not a bad fallback option.
Wearing a crisp white shirt, the mayor breezes in from a busy morning of meetings and orders a mineral water as he and Gloftis get chatting.
“Most things, especially in hospitality, are about timing and getting the timing right,” Gloftis tells Tate.
“And I reckon you came to the Gold Coast at the right time. As in, you became mayor of the Gold Coast at the right time for us. We needed someone to do that. Everything was right – the critical mass was starting to get there with the population growth and Commonwealth Games – we just needed someone to let us have a crack.”
Tate, a Laos-born, Sydney-raised engineer turned millionaire businessman who was elected Mayor in 2012 when the Coast was still in the post-GFC doldrums, says his aim was to unite a divided council and restore confidence.
“I’ve got a pretty simple formula from back in my business days – if you’ve got certainty, you’ve got confidence,” he says over a feast of dolmades, dips, loukanika (spicy Greek sausages) and Greek salad.
“And with confidence comes ‘well how do I invest?’. Then you hit the banks and you get the money going, and the projects are born, and the jobs created. That’s really the formula and I took that to council.”
Tate says one of his first moves upon being elected was to ‘chop the head out of the snake of the planning department’ – in other words, get rid of the-then planning director who he saw as obstructionist.
“That gives certainty,” Tate says with a chuckle. “We brought in a new town plan, you know, cut the red tape. Confidence came when I put my promotional hat on to go ‘well, we mean business’. And when I go to China, I speak to the Chinese and tell them we’re open for business – it gets their attention. And then you build a relationship there.
“I met up with (Australian) bank executives and I said ‘guys, the timing is right to turn your (funding) tap back on. Because compare our (property) prices to Sydney and Melbourne, we’re really below par and the opportunity exists. I’m doing you a favour. I’ve got these major projects going up and they’re all funded by overseas banks. And I know one thing about you guys is that the minute I don’t need money from you, you want to give it to me. I’m telling you the city in the very near future won’t need any money from you because it’s flowing in from overseas’.
“That’s how the tap got flowing and then the projects came through. Jewel (a $1 billion Chinese project on the Surfers Paradise beachfront) was one of the first major projects that came online and then it generated jobs. We’ve got the lowest unemployment anywhere in Australia, I think.”
What’s in it for long-term Gold Coasters?
“Real simple,” Tate says, answering his own rhetorical question. “If we’ve got jobs here, it gives the opportunity for our kids to have a choice whether or not they want to work on the Gold Coast and leave or go to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne or even overseas. Before I came in, there was no choice – they had to leave.
“My eldest (child) is a dentist, married a vet. They bought a house at Helensvale and they both work here. I know in the very near future they’ll visit us with grandkids.
“What I’m all about is job generation for future generations. It means we get the chance to have our family grow up close to us. So the family values are strong, and that’s why my passion won’t wane.”
Tate tells Gloftis that before being elected, it took him 12 months to get development approval for a small three-storey walk-up unit development at Labrador. At his wits end, Tate says he walked into a council planning meeting and said: “I respect you guys (have) got to cross the t’s and dot the i’s but I don’t think there’s any i’s left to dot, you’ve crossed the t’s triple times and I’m sick of it’.
Tate says then he went around the table asking each bureaucrat ‘what’s the bee in your bonnet?’ After negotiating compromises, Tate says he was able to get a development approval in three days. The experience made him think, ‘how many other projects by mum and dad investors are being stymied?’
“We were spending so much money on objections, something like $34 million on appeals,” he says. “When I was elected, I went to the appeals section and said, ‘gentlemen, I’ve got one request: can you just argue a bit less? Can you just negotiate’. That’s when I put (in) Cameron Caldwell as planning chair. I wanted a solicitor who could negotiate it out so we don’t go to court. That adds confidence too. Now, our D/As (development approvals) are very quick.
“It’s about clearing the pathway for mum and dad investors. It’s just as important that they’re successful as it is for the big developers, you know.”
The proof of the council’s new can-do attitude is in the pudding, Tate says – or rather, on the skyline.
“Former premier) Joh-Bjelke Peterson used to do the crane index,” he says. “When I came to office, there were two cranes in the sky. Both of them were at Griffith University. As I speak to you today there’s 42. I’ve got people out there counting them, going ‘Mr Mayor, I’ve got another one’.
“Then you look at what projects are coming through. There’s $5 billion worth of development applications in Southport alone. $5 billion. Then you look at other projects.”
Tate refers to the Coast’s tallest towers, ‘Project 88’, earmarked for the old Iluka site on the Surfers beachfront by Chinese developers.
The mayor fondly recounts the story of how the development company’s chairman told him the proposed 65-level building would be iconic.
“I looked at it and said ‘Mr Chairman, this is the best site in our city, it’s got to be iconic’,” Tate tells Gloftis with a grin. “He said, ‘But it is’. I said, ‘No it’s not. My definition of iconic is that when it’s finished, you and I are having a cold beer on the roof, looking down on Q1 – now that’s iconic!’
“The chairman smiled and goes ‘well how many storeys is Q1′ and I go ’78’ and he said ‘well, then we’ll do 80’. I said, ‘Mr Chairman, you’re Chinese right? Wouldn’t 88 be more lucky? So that’s how Project 88 started.”
The 88-level building was recently turned down in a planning court appeal by residents, but Tate says he encouraged the developers to apply under the new city plan, which has unlimited height restrictions for Surfers Paradise.
“And I told the chairman, ‘you should honour those people who objected and just make it 89 floors’ and that’s what it will be. I’m cheeky at times but people know I just can’t change. It’s that have a go spirit.”
Gloftis says: “That’s why we needed a mayor who can get people’s confidence going like you said, but not stop – keep it going.”
A member of the Stage 2 Light Rail business advisory group, Gloftis asks the mayor about the importance of the project, which will link the tram line to Gold Coast Airport. The second stage, connecting the light rail to the heavy rail at Helensvale, is due for completion before the Commonwealth Games.
Tate says the council ‘took the bull by the horns’ and undertook public consultation and feasability work on Stage 3 so that, ideally, work could start as soon as Stage 2 is finished. “That way we can go from Broadbeach all the way to the airport. That’s the plan.”
“Everyone’s positive, very positive, about Stage 3,” Gloftis says, before segueing into his favourite topic, food. “I know that when I travel, my first priority is food. When I look at Instagram photos, it’s all about food. Food and pretty girls! (laughs).”
“I tell you this,” Tate says. “I reckon the past five years; the (Gold Coast) restaurant scene has really jumped in (terms of) quality food, atmosphere and service.
“I’ve been here since ’93 and it has jumped more than any time since I arrived. I don’t know whether it’s the timing… that we feel like we’re becoming a global city and we’ve got to match it with the rest of the world… or the Commonwealth Games was the impetus, or there were just too many complaints (previously).
“But whatever it was, I travel quite extensively around the world, and I can be proud to recommend world-class restaurants here in our city. If you really wind back 10 years ago, you’d go ‘oh mate, that buffet at the Marriott’s not bad’. Now, I can say to people ‘well what kind of food do you like?’
“Jupiters has lifted their game as well to catch up. Kiyomi is, I would say, probably the best Japanese restaurant in Australia.”
Tate tells how he and wife Ruth dined at Kiyomi earlier this year before travelling to Melbourne the next day and eating at Crown Casino’s Nobu, owned by Hollywood legend Robert De Niro.
“After our Nobu meal, Ruth and I looked at each other and said ‘not quite as good as last night (at Kiyomi)’,” he says.
“Melbourne is meant to have the mantle as the cuisine (capital) of Australia – well they have that no more.”
The mayor says he’s also a massive fan of Hellenika, where celebrities including Chris Hemsworth have dined. “The only place that rivals the Greek food here would probably be the feast I go to at St Anna’s Greek Orthodox Church (at Bundall) because all the ladies are authentic,” he says.
“Time is not of the essence and they will put so much time into it. The dessert is all hand-done and all that. And boy, are they generous with their portions! I can’t recommend the church every day, so I recommend here (Hellenika),” Tate adds with another belly laugh.
Gloftis concurs: “My favourite Greek food in Australia was my grandmother’s house, so you’re absolutely right. But we are on the same page, that hospitality’s important for tourism as well?”
“It is the key,” Tate replies. “You can have a nice (hotel) room and this and that but you know, if you didn’t enjoy your food, it – pardon the pun – it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
“I think nowadays, food is part of your life. Nowadays, you want to enjoy company with your wife, family and friends – you share your food together. Nothing beats it. So if you get that right, that’s where the return customers come in for our city.”
Gloftis says the importance of the Coast’s hospitality sector shone through when he was hosting Chinese business people at The Fish House.
“They won’t do deals unless they sit down and eat with you first,” he says.
Tate nods. “It’s part of the culture, and not just the Chinese. Remember that delegation from UAE that we hosted at Fish House? That was part of the reason why that deal was consumated.”
Tate says he can’t talk about the deal yet, but it’s ‘huge’, involving ‘a huge export for the city’.
“There’s an example where the good fine dining adds to the economic benefit to the city. Not just buying and selling food, but it’s the goodwill,” he says.
Tate has not ruled out running for a third term but says if he achieves his goals before the next election in 2020, including getting a cruise ship terminal for the Coast and the cultural precinct up and running, he will probably retire from politics.
“While I’ve got the passion to keep stirring things up, I’ll continue to do so,” he says
“But the minute I’m running at half-pace, then I’m out, because we deserve someone who will have a good crack at a good speed. But I’m not going to leave things half-done.”