A history of favourable land deals for some?
For the first half of the 20th century, Coffs Harbour actually had a Civic and Cultural Centre.
Yes, we did! For fifty-one (51) years, our citizens of the day maintained a “School of Arts” under the guidance of a volunteer committee.
By ‘ Steve Mentiras’ *
A multi-purpose structure, it was the cultural nerve-centre of a tiny, but growing community of fewer than 6,000 souls. Whether it was the annual Eisteddfod, school graduation ceremonies, the winter ball season, receiving distinguished visitors, launching service clubs, or the Wednesday night basketball game, the venue was always our School of Arts.
Here it was that shy debutants entered society, visiting cultural troupes performed, our citizens gathered to conduct community business. It was the nerve centre of our community as Coffs Harbour rose in prominence. As a community, we enjoyed this facility at a token cost.
The School of Arts was superbly located between High Street (Harbour Drive) and Vernon Street, on the site occupied today by Cex’s Boulevarde Arcade. As our future city was emerging, the School of Arts Committee realised that the future needs would outstrip the capacity of the existing structure. In 1958 Dorrigo Shire gave way to the newly formed Coffs Harbour Shire Council, so the committee trustingly consulted with the Council to shape our community’s cultural future.
An agreement was reached in 1960 that the School of Arts would be sold for a Woolworths store, with the funds entrusted to Council for the development of a modern Civic Centre. Now a prime business site, Woolworths wasted no time is the demolition and construction of their modern-day retail store. This was the beginning of the “commerce replacing culture virus” in Coffs Harbour.
As part of their agreement, the School of Arts Committee was to be an active part in the design and construction of the new Civic Centre. For them, it was a frustratingly delayed process which took four years to deliver. The new Town Hall, opened in 1964, had provision for the inclusion of a new Library. As part of the celebrations, a banana eating competition was held. South Grafton’s Dick Sheperd consumed 32 bananas in one hour to emerge as the winner.
The new Town Hall, located next to the beautifully matching, modern, red-brick Council Chambers in Vernon Street was accompanied by the Town Library forming a three-stage Cultural Precinct that spanned the length of the Castle Street city block between Vernon Street and Coff Street.
For twenty-six years Coffs Harbour enjoyed our beautiful new Civic Centre/ Cultural Precinct. The Founding Fathers had indeed done us proud!
However, all too soon, the eyes of commercial interest were, yet again, cast upon our Cultural Precinct when an acquisition opportunity emerged.
Our Council was courting the establishment of Southern Cross University to our city. No doubt the securing of such a facility would be a master-stroke! Unfortunately, not enough thought was given to the cultural fall-out that followed as this “knee-jerk” solution was rushed through.
Sadly all three buildings were shortlived, destined to be demolished for the present Cex car park. Without a suitable facility for the Performing Arts, professional troupe’s appearing between Sydney and Brisbane began to bypass Coffs Harbour as a cultural “black-spot”. This land swap transaction has proved tragic for our cultural future.
The undeveloped land on Hogbin Drive was an option – but not the only option available in 1989! The deal appeared to be a simple land swap between Council and the RSL Club (now Cex). The rural property was exchanged for the Castle Street Cultural Precinct containing Coffs Harbour’s Council Chambers, Civic Centre and Library.
It was stated: “After all, we got a University, we’ll rebuild!” That decision thirty years ago has never been addressed. It was the death-knell of our Civic Space!
In 1988, as the land swap deal was going down, our Council successfully negotiated the acquisition of seventeen acres (7.7 Hectares) on City Hill for a Cultural Precinct. The State Government passed it to Council at a “peppercorn” price of approx. $200,000, on the condition that its purpose was for a Cultural Precinct.
The cultural community were excited, believing that this heralded a new era in our cultural scene. For the past thirty-one years, this idyllic location has been a “political football”, repeatedly exploited by commercial and pecuniary interests that have thwarted its development.
When campaigning for election in 2008, our current Mayor promised that the restoration of our neglected Civic Centre/Performing Arts would be her mission. Once again, the cultural community saw a ray-of-hope that cultural facilities would be restored.
In 2010 the State Government Architects delivered detailed plans and specifications (see above), and a display model was exhibited for public comment. It was completed and ready to call contracts for its construction. Our trusted Councillor sang its praises with great conviction, just as she had promised.
Sadly, by election time in 2012, our future Mayor had moved away from her election promise. Yet again, the press of commerce had intervened, and she was espousing the manipulation of our Civic/Cultural space for corporate purposes, to the detriment of our cultural future.
When our Council again addressed the question of Cultural and Civic Space, the community, exhausted by the political vacillations of our Council, paid little heed to the process in the mistaken belief that “Civic Space” meant a “Civic Centre”.
How wrong we were! For 33 of the past 59 years, we have been without a functioning Civic Centre – disillusioned, we had taken our eye off the ball!
As the community understood the original brief, it was believed that “Civic Space” said precisely that, at no time heralding new administration offices.
The subtlety by which this was achieved relied heavily on the trusting nature and lack of attention by the ratepayers in my opinion.
Once our citizens realised the exact position, that office space had replaced our Civic Centre, thirty per cent, (30%), of the voting community revolted by signing a Petition, addressed to our State Government.
Currently, almost 15,000 signatures have been recorded, and this number is growing.
Subsequent disturbing revelations relating to the administrative functions of our Council have grossly undermined the community’s confidence in the integrity of the whole project.
On a marginal approval rating of 51% in a survey conducted by Council (not by an independent body), Council committed irretrievably in pursuit of this deeply flawed project.
Repeated overtures to pause and collaborate, or pointing out of glaring anomalies in the process fell on deaf ears, as Council chose to escalate implementation before the wheels of justice could become effective.
When the resolution to proceed came before Council in July 2019 the vote was equal, with four (4) Councillors for the motion and four (4) against the motion.
Before a packed Chamber, residents were appalled to witness our Mayor twice breach the parliamentary Convention to “maintain the status quo”, by casting her second vote in favour of the motion. This action has created untold damage to the relationship between Council at its ratepayers!
The “bombshell” announcement during that July 2019 meeting came from the Manager of the Cex Club.
In a guarded statement, under the privilege of confidentiality, it was revealed that an undisclosed agreement had been reached between the Council and Cex Club that a Cultural Entertainment Centre was to be constructed by Cex.
Council had, under the surreptitious cloak of secrecy in my opinion, abdicated its responsibility of replacing our Civic Centre to the sole control and administration of a profit-motivated corporate entity!
In doing so, our Council tacitly endorsed the Cex application for State Government Grant monies, for what is essentially a community project!
Our Civic Centre lies at the very heart of our community pride; where we unite as citizens who care enough to stamp our unique identity. It is woven into that Aussie National Pride of “ownership” which we represent. It should once again become the focal point we once enjoyed in our School of Arts, sixty years ago.
Following the stunning Cex disclosure, citizens of long-standing looked back at the land-swap deal of 30 years ago, recalling similar promises made by Cex (then RSL) for the restoration of lost assets.
Is this a residual, unresolved condition still in abeyance from that 1989 deal? Was the existing Cex auditorium created as the 600/1000 seat theatre that was spoken of at that time? In its current condition that facility bears no resemblance to other Performing Arts venues.
At $1,080 rental per half-day, community events like Eisteddfods, school presentations or community assemblies are not being economically serviced.
Many citizens are concerned by the prominence of the Cex Club in a multiplicity of land deals with Coffs Harbour City Council.
With due respect Madam Mayor, can you possibly wonder why your citizens are so angry and disillusioned?
Council has lost the trust of the community by bombastically ignoring their voice.
It is not only our right, but it is our responsibility to protest in the most strenuous terms.
*Not author’s real name. the author is known to Coffs Coast outlook however.