What was once a heavy industry hotspot and thoroughfare to Hunter vineyards is now a booming location for young families: Cessnock is set to almost double its population in just two decades.
The area was home to 63,600 people at last count in 2021 and will likely have 112,500 residents by 2041.
This is a far cry from a population forecast mapped by an advisory for the council five years ago, which reckoned Cessnock would be sitting at just under 70,000 people at the end of the same time period.
The explosive growth, tracking at an annual rate of 3.78 per cent, is joyous news for Cessnock City Council's Jay Suvaal. He is now mayor in one of the state's fastest-growing areas, according to the Department of Planning. Similar growth is predicted for Maitland.
Cr Suvaal told the Newcastle Herald he expected many of the moves were because of remote working flexibility and cheaper real estate options than in cities.
"You can come up here, have an amazing lifestyle, live in a place with a yard and a bit more space around and enjoy a community feel," he said. "We are the doorstep of the vineyards. We've got that amazing tourism and hospitality available."
"We are getting more and more people coming from Sydney up to the area, but we're also not having people leave," Cr Suvaal said. "Previously, we'd have younger people shift and move away and some other people come in. My understanding [is that] at the moment, we are having less people leave than come."
This retention reflects a recent lifestyle decision made by many young people nationally to stay in or return to the regions.
But while the population boom is welcomed by council, a crucial question looms: can Cessnock pass the test?
Cr Suvaal said schools around Bellbird were nearing capacity, as were ones at Branxton and Greta, areas which were recently reported as having a growth rate of 5.6 per cent. New infrastructure like a high school promised for Huntlee was "desperately needed".
The demographic of Cessnock hasn't changed much over the years. The median age, for example, has sat at around 37 years old since at least 2011.
But Cr Suvaal predicted the area was about to get younger, and with that would come more people travelling out for work and education.
Tension around Cessnock traffic conditions is already hot. The council has started planning for a four-lane Wollombi Road expansion, doubling the two lanes in place. They say the upgrades will ease traffic during peak times, improve intersections and add bus stop access.
But residents argue the proposal will cripple their customer base, cull parking and cost ratepayers.
The council has now proposed an update to their ambitious Traffic and Transport Strategy, which is on public exhibition until the end of February. The strategy is an upgraded version of a 2018 plan, which at the time could not account for the unprecedented growth of Cessnock
It addresses congestion and road conditions - two of the biggest issues highlighted by locals during a previous survey.
Under the strategy, a preferred road network plan would include upgrades to Wollombi and Old Maitland roads. New connections would be built between Bellbird and the Lovedale Road and Wine Country Drive intersection, and between Bellbird and Aberdare.
A road bypassing Weston would be constructed, along with a duplication of the existing Main Road corridor from Kurri Kurri to the council boundary.
The council also hopes public transport routes - including a potential Cessnock to Maitland train line - will be considered by the NSW government.
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Under the plan, residents would be able to have most needs fulfilled within a 15-minute radius of their house.
Admitting the plan was a significant undertaking, Cr Suvaal said it would stand up to the test if treated as a living document. His council intended to evaluate the strategy regularly, in line with Cessnock's infrastructure needs.
"I don't think you can ever do enough forward planning. I think you always want to be updating plans," he said. "You can't set and forget. You need to be constantly monitoring and reviewing it."
Four community consultation sessions on the strategy were held last year and a survey was open to the public.
Upgrades slated in the strategy would be paid for through a combination of council funding and grants from State and Federal governments. Cr Suvaal said for the plan to work, it would be crucial the NSW government to understand needs in Cessnock.
"The population growth maps haven't matched reality. Certainly, they haven't here in the Hunter," he said. "We need to make sure the State government is seeing what's happening on the ground - listening to what's happening - and making sure funding flows.
"That's our role as councils to advocate but they need to make sure that funding is in place. When there is growth, there needs to be funding that matches it."