BAW BAW // COUNCILLORS have approved a significant redevelopment plan for the West Gippsland Arts Centre, but funding remains uncertain.
The redevelopment will see the seating capacity of the centre’s theatre increased from the present 480 seats to 750, a new foyer to the south side of the auditorium and other new foyers to access the rear stalls and balcony, and the reorientation of the entrance to better connect with neighbouring Civic Park.
Also on the to-do list is disability act compliant accessible wheelchair spaces and lift, changes to the café location, new meeting and function spaces for hosting major and minor conferences, and improvements to technical and backstage facilities.
According to a report to councillors prepared by Baw Baw staff, the redevelopment would be financially achievable if grants from state and federal governments are achieved and community fundraising takes place. The total cost of the redevelopment has been estimated at $11.5 million, but is considered by councillors to be worthwhile.
“This is something that is very important to our community,” Warragul ward councillor Mikaela Power said on moving the approval motion on Wednesday.
Cr Power emphasised the Arts Centre’s role in introducing young people to the stage and their first jobs, suggesting an expansion could keep artistic youth in the region.
“We have a group of young people who leave, they go that way (to Melbourne) and don’t come back,” Cr Power said.
“It’s an alternative to Macca’s, and often something they have experience of in school through shows, so they don’t have that leap into employment.”
Drouin ward’s Tricia Jones also spoke highly of the WGAC’s role in the community, but stressed the financial side of the project must be kept in check.
“Council has for a few years discussed its redevelopment [and] until recently very little has changed save for the new seating and refurbished wash rooms,” Cr Jones said.
“People would like to know how much we are going to spend and is it going to be thoughtfully spent.
“Fundraising was done (for the original build of the centre) in the 1970s and will be done again. I understand the 1970s campaign didn’t reach the desired goal; it is a concern to me and I would be seeking some kind of capping on council funding.”
Mount Worth ward councillor Peter Kostos was more optimistic about community fundraising, saying a raffle campaign in Sydney to cover a hundred-thousand dollar shortfall for the Sydney Opera House’s construction “paid for the project in 18 months.”
Warragul ward’s Joe Gauci said the redevelopment could be “very economically sound” and talked up the arts centre’s role as “an icon in the town” while acknowledging some changes would be made. The design for the redevelopment had been studied by an independent analysis group which determined there was a strong business case for the project.
“We’ve tried to keep the original design and shape which is unique,” he said.
“There might be some changes to the concept.”
Support for the project at the meeting did not just come from councillors, and not just from Warragul. During public submissions four people spoke in favour of the redevelopment, including Trafalgar Community Development Association president David Lyons.
“The TCDA did write in (when the redevelopment was first proposed) and say yes, we’re keen, we’re going to contribute,” Mr Lyons said.
“It’s as important to us as the Trafalgar Recreation Reserve and swimming pool.
“It’s an important part of our community, even if it isn’t in our community. Dance eisteddfods, youth theatre and school productions are all held there. An increase in seating as proposed will assist those kinds of productions.
“The arts centre allows all residents of all ages to access music and comedy acts. The facility also supports conference events, and I know, working for Trafalgar High School, I’ve brought students with disabilities out here for expos.
“A vibrant community increases employment, and I have seen that happening. Improved job opportunities will come out of this – for some young people their first jobs are as ushers or in the café.
The reorientation of the centre to be a part of the civic park precinct. I think that will really open up the area, and we already know how busy it is with the arts market and farmers’ market.”
While Mr Lyons put the emphasis on youth, another submitter, John Parker, said an expansion of the centre was important for Baw Baw’s ageing population.
“This project is an important next step for our community,” he said.
“The Baw Baw Shire would have had something less than 2,000 people aged over 60 when the WGAC was built. By 2031, the aged 60 population is expected to grow to over 20,000; well within the lifespan of this arts centre.
“A redevelopment with extra access points and lift would be good I was concerned during a recent seniors’ week concert that if it took so long to get the oldies in, how long would it take to get them out in an emergency?
“This is in line with the shire’s ageing strategy.”
Mounth Worth ward councillor Murray Cook was a part of the WGAC’s original building committee alongside some figures key to getting the centre built.
“This was the vision of the people on that committee, and Sheila Ferguson MBE. I don’t think it would’ve been there if not for Sheila Ferguson,” he said.
“There was some resistance to building the original building and there was a delay of two years, which meant we got less building for the state government funding.”
The council officer report states several other potential benefits of the redevelopment, including the opportunity to improve the WGAC’s environmental impact through modern building standards.
All councillors supported the motion, as well as the next motion on the agenda – the acceptance of the draft Civic Place masterplan.
The plan was put together to identify ways the precinct, which includes the WGAC and council buildings, could be improved and will inform future decisions on the site.
On moving the motion to accept the draft masterplan, Cr Power emphasised the need to connect council and public spaces.
“If you go out there on a warm night there will be any number of people there. It’s an active space, but the WGAC is somewhat removed,” Cr Power said.
“It’s something to start with.”
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