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Minister for Local Government comments on Mackay Park blowout and community alarm

Encouraged by the actions of the NSW Minister for Local Government, Shelley Hancock, to defer the $76.5m Civic Precinct development in Coffs Harbour saying it was foolish, rash and unnecessary at this stage members of the Eurobodalla community wrote to the Minister saying :

"It is reassuring to find a Minister willing to ensure that public funds are spent wisely and not squandered on unnecessary, overambitious or unaffordable projects, particularly those that lack community support.

With your efforts to act in the Public Interest in mind, we seek your intervention on a proposed multi million dollar development in the Eurobodalla Shire.

NAME:       Batemans Bay Regional Aquatic, Arts and Leisure Centre(BBRAALC)

COST:        $55m plus(with cost blow out some say it could be up to $70m)

FUNDING: Grants from State and Federal Governments – $51m, Loan - $4m

The reasons for seeking your intervention are many: limited consultation, unaffordability, failure to address community expectations, questionable economic viability, secrecy and deception by Eurobodalla Shire Council (ESC) throughout the process.

HISTORY

For decades the Batemans bay community had wanted an indoor heated 50m pool and a performance space. When ESC bought the old Bowling Club site(with no consultation & for unknown reasons) in 2016, it appeared the Bay community would finally get their heated 50m pool.

However, in the intervening 3 - 4 years, plans became more ambitious with more inclusions and the area for the proposed development was extended to include the adjacent site of the present outdoor 50m pool and iconic Mini Golf business.

Inclusions: 6 or 7 aquatic pools/features, gym, wellness area, amenities; arts and cultural centre with auditorium, gallery and exhibition space; wet and dry art spaces, storage, meeting and multi purpose rooms; cafe, Visitor Information Centre, Community Centre, offices.

However, at some point in time, for reasons unknown to the public, council decided not to include the old Bowling Club site. This meant all the inclusions having to be squashed into half the space. So now the proposal only has a 25m pool, a much reduced auditorium(500 seats down to 350) and no space for future expansion.

REASONS FOR INTERVENTION

* Consultation: Council failed to comply with its own Community Engagement Framework for a major development. Major decisions were made by council with the community only being consulted on minor issues – even councillors were not given the opportunity to vote on the demolition of 50m pool.

Community did not ask for yet another gym – already at least 4 in the Bay.

The Sunset Committee was sworn to secrecy. Resignations occurred as input was ignored and engagement with the community was denied.

Major user groups were not consulted.

Council’s online survey showed overwhelming support for 50m pool. This was ignored by council.

Resolutions passed at public meetings, organised by the community, over the last 2 and a half years were presented to council but were ignored.

* Affordability: Original business case provided by Otium 4 years ago contained disclaimers, required additional considerations and updating. However no revised business case has been made available to the public, even though Minister Andrew Constance advised council to do so.

Eurobodalla is a low income area with an aging demographic. Without a business case it is unknown if future ongoing costs are affordable.

Council has admitted that there is a cost ‘blow out’ well above the $55m – the amount is being kept secret. Council intends to cover this amount by selling off community assets. Assets to be sold are also being kept secret.

* Community Expectations: Community needs and expectations have not been met as council was selective in their consultation excluding major user groups like swimming club, surf clubs etc. One of the shire’s surf clubs(surf lifesavers) did a public forum presentation to council saying they needed a 50m pool for training. Council said it would ‘look into’ a 50m sea pool – nothing has eventuated.

As regards the gym, council should not be going into competition with local businesses. Either current gyms will lose business and possibly close or council’s gym will not attract the business it expects.

As council intends to sell the present Community Centre it was hoped the new development would cater for all the uses the Centre is currently used for – not so. It seems there is no kitchen/fridge space to cater for Meals on Wheels as is the case at the moment.

It was hoped the auditorium would be large enough to attract ‘big named artists’ – not so. The Bay already has a Club with 500 seating capacity so why bother with a 350 seat auditorium?

* Economic Viability: difficult to assess without a current business case.

Those requiring a 50m pool for training, competition, carnivals, events etc will have to travel outside the shire to Ulladulla – loss of patronage.

Auditorium not big enough for major/popular performances.

Expected income from gym questionable

It is feared that patronage may not be enough to cover running, maintenance and repair costs into the future.

* Secrecy and Deceit by ESC :

Secrets – Quantity Surveyors estimate of total cost (cost ‘blow out’), revised business case, community infrastructure to be sold off, original grant application(GIPA requests failed), 50m pool to be replaced with 25m pool, sunset committee, compensation payout to iconic Mini Golf business(in development footprint), concepts to be included in design, reasons for removing Bowling Club site and plans for that site.

Deceit – Council sought letters of support for their grant application from local schools without disclosing the fact that they intended to demolish the 50m pool and replace it with a 25m pool. Schools withdrew their support on finding out this fact. It is unknown if these letters of support were sent in with the Grant Application as council refuses to disclose it. 

Council persists with its claim that there has been wide community consultation when in fact it has been ‘selective’ and only on minor issues. The Sunset Committee, chaired by the Mayor, was supposed to develop an Engagement Plan and accept input from community but neither occurred.

The Eurobodalla community have no ownership over the proposed BBRAALC development as they have been denied involvement in making the important decisions, yet all ratepayers will be responsible for financing ongoing costs. Openness, transparency and accountability have been sadly lacking throughout the process – as a result many fear it will be a ‘white elephant.’ 

We recognise that such developments, at this time, are desired for their contribution to economic growth and job creation. However, the Eurobodalla Shire was hit hard by the bushfires with the loss of 500 homes, shops and businesses, loss and damage to hundreds of outbuildings, facilities, fences, public infrastructure – roads, bridges, telecommunications etc. It will take years to repair, rebuild and replace these losses. Added to this is the Batemans Bay Bridge construction, Moruya Bypass and a promised new hospital.

With all this current and proposed development, there is ample time for the BBRAALC to be reconsidered ensuring affordability, fit for purpose and community support. 

As concerned residents and ratepayers of Eurobodalla, we the undersigned, appeal to you as Minister for Local Government to give due diligence to our urgent appeal.  We consider your intervention to be urgent as the ESC has and is, ‘pushing’ this project forward with undue haste, overlooking red flag issues and ignoring community concerns. Council is now at the stage of undertaking a ‘selective tendering’ process for construction.

We look forward to your considered response and would be most grateful if a meeting with you, at your convenience, could be arranged to elaborate our case in more detail.

The Ministers office responded on the 10th of July 2020 saying: "The Government recognises that there are a range of views in the local community on the merits of the this project. While the project may not enjoy universal support from all members of the local community, the decision to proceed with the project is one that rests with the Council in its discretion.

"However, it is the Government’s view that all councils need to be careful in how they use ratepayers’ money, particularly at a time when they are under financial pressure and facing significant challenges in maintaining delivery of community infrastructure and services because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Ultimately, the Council will be accountable to its community for its decision to proceed with the project. "The community will have an opportunity to demonstrate its support or dissatisfaction with the Council’s decision when voting at the next council election." Council will soon be deliberating on construction and facility management tenders received to proceed with the Mackay Park project. These tenders must return to the Council chamber for approval. The Mayor and her councillors along with the General Manager, Directors and key staff will 'Ultimately be accountable to its community for its decision to proceed with the project.' With the project now expected to blow out from $46 million to $65 million and with council refusing to release figures on projected incomes and expenditures (that are in the order of $3 million per year once the complex is opened) the councillors will need to be open and transparent with their community about the true costs of MOVING FORWARD as it will be the entire community, from Durras to Akolele who will carry the burden if the Centre fails to break even.

Above: Embroiled in two alleged rorting deals the Mackay Park project is now being widely referred to as Mackay Pork after the community were asked to name the new Centre with the revelation that Eurobodalla Council is currently looking for an "experienced naming" consultant to tender for the task of coming up with a name.

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