Little’s giant investment reinvigorates Bellarine’s hidden secret

It often takes a vision, and a whole lot of money, to turn a cellar-dweller town into a thriving tourism hotspot. Paul Little, the former Essendon chairman and Toll Holdings managing director, has that belief for Portarlington, and the deep pockets to turn his vision into reality.

With new ferries from Melbourne, the millions his Little Group has pumped into Portarlington’s 134-year-old pub and even sponsorship of the local football and netball club, Little – who made a motza when the logistics empire was sold for $6.5 billion in 2015 – has a stake in some of the sleepy Bellarine Peninsula village’s key assets.

Paul Little has invested heavily in Portarlington.Credit:Arsineh Houspian

Local real estate agent Greg Cameron says Portarlington is being reinvigorated, and the property market “is very, very hot”.

“The prices have gone up dramatically,” Cameron says. “I’ve never seen price surges like Portarlington has gone through.”

John Rae, president of the local business development association, believes the Little Group bringing in the Docklands ferry in late 2016 deserves most of the credit for turning Portarlington into a desirable place to live.

“Paul Little came along, and we got two ferries running,” says Rae, whose association had worked for 11 years on getting the ferry service connected. “And that was the start of it.”

The ferry service between Portarlington, Geelong and Docklands has improved the Bellarine’s livability.Credit:Joe Armao

Lyndsay Sharp, director of marketing, sales and hospitality at the Sharp Group, which owns wineries and a golf course on the peninsula, calls the Bellarine a “pocket rocket” and says Little has given the area a much-needed boost

“He’s an amazing person, and his commitment to the region has already seen it go from strength to strength,” Sharp told The Age.

“The ferry is amazing, and it’s exciting it now goes to Geelong and Portarlington, and his investment and commitment to the region have already made a tangible difference to visitation.”

Portarlington is rarely mentioned in the same conversation as Portsea or Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula, or Lorne or Torquay on the Great Ocean Road. But Sharp says that the “potential here is exponential”, and property prices are starting to reflect that.

Paul Little, posing with the Wyndham Explorer. The ferries no longer travel to Wyndham and now travel to Portarlington and Geelong.Credit:Craig Sillitoe

Little told The Age that the Bellarine is “the fastest-growing region in Victoria”.

“The Little Group is very excited about the strong growth opportunities in the Bellarine,” he said.

Like much of Geelong and the greater Bellarine and Surf Coast, Portarlington’s property prices have risen by 83.3 per cent over the past five years, including a hike of 17.3 per cent over the past 12 months, to a median $880,000.

Cameron, who is the director at Neville Richards Real Estate, said the market in Portarlington “has been incredible”.

“You’re getting quite a lot of families coming this way. They’re cashing their house in in Melbourne and making quite a lot of money … and the breadwinners are catching the ferry across to work.”

The key to Portarlington’s recent success, Cameron says, has been access to the city via the regular boat service and the rejuvenated hotel, both of which are Little’s work.

“There are a lot of people catching the ferry to work. The town is also being reinvigorated with the hotel being completely refurbished.”

It’s a 102-kilometre drive from Portarlington to Melbourne’s Docklands, but by sea it’s only 42 kilometres.

Each morning, somewhere between 80 and 110 city workers make the 70-minute journey from Portarlington and catch the boat back home to the Bellarine in the evening.

An artist’s impression of the beer garden at the Grand Hotel in Portarlington.

“I guess it really emanated from the ferries,” says Murray Rance, operations director at the Little Group.

“[Little has] had this passion for water transport for many years now,” Rance says.

“We actually started off the ferry going [from Docklands] to Wyndham Harbour [near Werribee], and that wasn’t a success, and the people from Portarlington actually approached us to bring the ferry here.”

While the ferry has become a popular option for workers heading to and from the city, the ferry into Portarlington on a weekday morning is far from reaching its capacity.

That’s why Little bought the Victorian-era Grand Hotel in 2019 for about $10 million – to offer ferry-travellers an eat-drink-and-stay establishment, showcasing the Bellarine’s best wine and produce. He’s since spent at least another $10 million on a refurbishment that has already transformed the historic venue.

Rance told The Age that despite the significant investment, buying Portarlington’s pub was as much about passion as it was money.

“I can tell you, and it’s no secret, [Little] loves history, and he loves the history of the beautiful buildings that were built in the 1800s. When we do restore something, we restore it properly.”

“Paul [Little] rarely makes misjudged investments,” he says. “He’s a very patient investor … He’s a very passionate Victorian.”

Mark Henderson, the hotel’s venue manager, remembers what the pub was like when he first walked through the tired, forlorn but history-rich venue.

Billionaire Paul Little has renovated the Grand Hotel in Portarlington.Credit:Artist impression

It smelt, tap beer was cheap because no one wanted to drink it, women didn’t feel welcome, and the bar layout was unimaginative. He was told when he took over that no one would want to spend more than $35 on a bottle of wine. He took that feedback with a grain of salt and redesigned what is now a trendy but warm and welcoming hotel.

“There were people who said, ‘Mr Little is spending a lot of money on this pub, it’s going to be too pretentious and lose the essence of it being a local pub’, and we’ve said, ‘Not at all’,” Henderson says.

“We’ve said all the way along [that] it’s going to be a great pub in a nice building, but it’s still going to be a pub.”

“The people come down here and say, ‘This is what the Mornington Peninsula was some 20 years ago’,” Henderson says. “We see ourselves being at the start of the rebirth.”

Richard Underwood, who runs the Portarlington Mussel Festival, says very few people would be critical of Little’s changes to the pub.

“He’s taken [over] a very neglected, run-down hotel,” he says.

At the last census, Portarlington had a median age of 59, and although the recent influx of families may have lowered that, the lack of junior players has been an issue for the Portarlington Demons Football and Netball Club.

Since the start of the 2017 season, the Demons have won just four games of senior football. On Saturday, they suffered a 130-point loss to Geelong Amateurs, the weekend before they were beaten by Newcomb by 102 points. The weekend before that, they went down to a 231-point loss to Torquay.

When Little heard of the club’s woes, he asked Rance to make sure the club got the support it needed and the pub and Port Phillip Ferries are now among the club’s most significant sponsors.

“I think both of us come from very humble beginnings of small towns, small suburbs, and the heart of town is usually the football club, netball club and cricket club,” Rance said.

“We’re really pleased to support the footy club, and hopefully over the next two or three years, we see them get up the ladder a bit further.”

With more families discovering the appeal of Portarlington, everyone involved is hoping that, like the town itself, the Demons’ fortunes will soon turn.

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