While argument has raged hot and furious on the merits or otherwise of the $40m Civic Hall redevelopment, another project has slipped under the radar. At an estimated $80m, it is twice the size of the $40m Civic Hall project. It is variously known as the Eureka Sports and Events Precinct project, the Major Events and Entertainment Precinct, or variations on the theme. Never mind that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Eureka precinct -what we are talking about is the redevelopment of the Northern Oval and the Ballarat Showgrounds.
How did this project escape your notice, you might ask? Well, it is a story of discrete liaisons and commercial-in-confidence veils that shield this project from the public view.
Main players are the Ballarat City Council, the North Ballarat Football Club, and the Ballarat Agricultural and Pastoral Society. Supporting players are The Ballarat Courier (who call it by a new name again -The Think Big Ballarat-Eureka Stadium), Sport and Recreation Victoria, and possibly the University of Ballarat and the Committee for Ballarat. The exact relationships are hard to establish because, as I said, this is a story of discrete liaisons. Those elements in the public domain must be pieced together, like a jigsaw with many of its parts missing, in the hope that enough can be seen of the emerging picture to reveal its true nature.
In the month before the 2010 state elections, Ballarat City Council received two reports to its meeting of October 27. One of these canvassed possible projects that could be presented to the Labor and Liberal/National parties as suitable for any pork-barrelling they might be considering for Ballarat and district. The effectiveness of such a list so late in the electoral cycle needs to be questioned, but Council duly rated projects as either "Primary or Secondary Initiatives", with the latter less favoured for a variety of reasons. The Ballarat Major Events Precinct was deemed a Secondary Initiative, behind nine Primary Initiatives.
The second report on that night was considered during the confidential part of the meeting because it was dealing with "proposed developments" provided an assessment of the viability of the Major Sports and Entertainment Precinct project, which included three consultants' reports on aspects of the proposal. This included a Pre-Feasibility study on a Major Events and Exhibition Precinct by consultants, Ernst and Young, and two reports prepared by Coffey Commercial Advisory, Ballarat Exhibition Centre Pre-Feasibility Assessment for CoB, and Eureka Stadium -Facility Infrastructure Needs and Preliminary Feasibility Assessment for Sport and Recreation Victoria. None of these reports have ever been made public. The resolution of council included the following:
3. Note that the proposed development contained within the current
report is not capable of being delivered within the financial
parameters of Council;
4. Note that significant examination of the cost and scale of a possible
development will be required in order to better align the vision with
the financial capability of funding bodies."
That seems to explain why the project was ranked a "Secondary Initiative".
Since that time, no further report has come before a council meeting, although on September 14, 2011, Mayor Craig Fletcher successfully moved a motion on notice to adopt the project as a "Primary Project" (note the change from Initiative to Project) and called for a full report on the proposal for the October meeting of council. That report has still to come before the council. It should also be noted that in the Council Plan and the Budget, the project is not identified as a priority.
Whilst nothing seems to have happened to alter the status of this project at a formal council meeting level, the project has a life of its own regardless of this neglect:
- On July 22 the Mayor announced through a media release having recently signed a $921,000 grant from Sport and Recreation Victoria to make the ground suitable for community use and in line with the Municipal Health and Wellbeing Plan and the Sports Precinct Strategy, when in fact the grant is to make the ground AFL ready by upgrading change rooms and media facilities, and neither the Health and Wellbeing Plan nor the Sports Precinct Strategy say anything about this project being a priority. The council budget, adopted only a month earlier, does not anticipate it either.
- On Friday September 2, the Mayor issues a media release entitled Mayor Invites AFL to Call Ballarat Home(Ref 1)
- Saturday September 3, The Courier announces its Think Big Ballarat-Eureka Stadium logo and campaign. For the first time we are informed that the local contribution is $20m out of the $80m cost, though how The Courier knows this without any council report is subject to speculation. They do advise they have joined in a partnership with Ballarat City Council to Think Big Ballarat. There has been no discussion at a council meeting of this, or the AFL to Call Ballarat Home campaign. (Ref 2)
- September 2011, receipt of another consultant report commissioned by council but never tabled at a council meeting. It is another report by Ernst and Young An Estimate of the Economic Impact of AFL matches being played in Ballarat. It is in the public domain though.
- October 5, Anthony Schinck is quoted in The Courier citing "economic modelling done by the council...a major events centre would ensure the economic sustainability of the project and continue to return on an $80 million investment proposed for its 2010 precinct plan."" (Ref 3)
- Schinck refuses to make available the economic modelling or to say if and when the council has seen it. This continues to be the case despite the author asking for a response at three successive council meetings and a date (Nov 23) being minuted at council meetings for a response.
- October 11 & 12 sees Mayor Fletcher and CEO Schinck in a delegation to Canberra comprised of UB, City of Ballarat, Selkirk Brick, Ballarat Health Services, Committee for Ballarat, the Courier and Premier PR. One of the tasks of the delegation includes lobbying for support for the Eureka Sports and Entertainment Precinct. (Ref 4)
- October 27, The Courier announces front page Boost to Eureka Case article on a NAB Cup match for the 2012 Begonia Festival and links it to the most recent Ernst and Young study, and to the overall viability of the project. All of page 4 is dedicated to the issue and the Editorial as well. Courier staff express surprise when questioned, that the promised report (from the Mayor's earlier notice of motion) that was to have been tabled at the council meeting the night before was not produced, but they decide to publish their prepared story on the AFL despite this. (Ref 6)(Ref 7)(Ref 8)(Ref 9)
- Saturday, November 12, in the Courier, an opinion piece by high profile North Ballarat Roosters AFL coach, Gerard Fitzgerald entitled "Our Chance to Leave a Legacy", in which he indicates knowledge of the details of the proposed development for Eureka Stadium and even goes so far as to say, "a business case developed by Ernst and Young for the City of Ballarat, to be used in its application to the Regional Australia Development Fund, showed..." The Ernst and Young study does not develop a business case; it is an economic benefit study. (See my next article to appreciate the difference.)
- November 7 - 15, North Ballarat Football Club Rooster Kokoda Challenge walking the Kokoda Trail. Amongst them is the CEO of the NBFC, the CEO of Ballarat City Council, General Manager The Courier, and the husband and son of the then immediate past mayor of Ballarat. This has involved planning, training and bonding together, but is probably entirely unrelated to the partnership on redeveloping the Northern Oval. -Make your own judgement.
The point of this rather painful documentation of events is that there appears to be a lot of decision-making within the council that never makes it into the public domain, apart from the media spin once it has happened. Aside from a poll question, the Council website has nothing, not even a drawing of its proposed $80m project. The Courier cannot be relied upon to report disinterestedly on the matter as it is spruiking the project as a partner. The CEO refuses to answer simple administrative questions. The councillors know he has failed this obligation, yet apparently refuse to sanction or direct him. He appears to have consistently failed his obligation to advise the councillors of their legal requirement to make decisions in publicly accessible meetings, with proper agendas and minutes. So far he has been Teflon man. But for how much longer?
My next piece will take a close look at the Ernst and Young Study on the economic impact of AFL games on Ballarat, and what it does and doesn't tell us, and what the effusive reporting in The Courier neglected to mention.John Barnes worked as a senior officer in local government in Ballarat. He subsequently went on to be a councillor and was Mayor from 1998 -2000. View his stories for The Ballarat Independent here.