Kurri Kurri at a crossroads

 THE Hydro aluminium smelter closure and the winding down of the Hunter Expressway construction contracts are combining to hurt the Kurri Kurri economy, town leaders say.

But the same civic identities are confident the expressway will help guarantee Kurri’s long-term future, provided the HEZ industrial site is allowed to flourish.

Cessnock councillor and former smelter employee Rod Doherty said two shops – Clarksons and The Liqudators – had closed before Christmas.

Kurri Kurri Chamber of Commerce vice-president Toby Thomas said he feared the number of empty shops in Kurri was likely to rise in the coming months.

‘‘The long-term future looks good but there is going to be short-term pain as the construction work draws to a close and we lose that money out of the economy,’’ Mr Thomas said. ‘‘But once people can drive on that expressway from the end of this year you’ll start to see improvement.

‘‘It’s fair to say the town has stagnated a bit because HEZ has not taken off the way it was expected to but I think a majority of the public now realise that we need it.’’

The publican of Kurri’s Station Hotel, Bill Metcalfe, said teams of ‘‘mainly Irish’’ workers, who had been employed on the expressway project, had been leaving town in recent weeks to move to new jobs at Kempsey and Moree.

Mr Metcalfe, who worked at the smelter for 31 years until 2001, said Kurri’s economy had been ‘‘jacked up’’ by the expressway construction work and the loss of the wages being spent in the town would be widely felt.

‘‘The whole top of my pub had been booked out.’’

Work on the expressway began in August 2010 with the Thiess-led Hunter Expressway Alliance working on a 13 kilometre eastern section. In April 2011, Abigroup began building 27 kilometres from the west, with the two ends to join in the middle.

The $1.7 billion project should be open to traffic by the end of this year, joining Branxton directly to the Newcastle link-road at West Wallsend, with four interchanges – including Kurri – along the 40 kilometre stretch.

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