Thursday night at 7 p.m in Cairns there was a Cultural Precinct 'information session' at Crosswell Hall organised by Barry Neal, a local resident and founder of Residents Against Crime. It was advertised as a great event for those who are opposed to the Precinct, want the Precinct and those who are 'fence sitters'. As a resident who would be extremely happy to see the Precinct built I went along to find out how I could support the project and to get as much information as possible to pass along to residents I meet who might still be unsure of the details.
Within 1 minute of my arrival it became apparent that my view was very much the minority view and this was not the forum I had imagined and hoped for. There were fliers in large stacks proclaiming the site earmarked for development was unsuitable and should not be considered for this project. I took one.....it's the paper I used to write notes on all night.
First up, Brett Moller. He spoke at length ( and when I say length, I mean it!) Close to one hour was spent listening to him have his say and watching him fiddle with the Power Point presentation. I have seen many people over the past few years struggle with those things, obviously their main purpose is to make grown men and women look foolish.
His main argument, after imparting his entire CV, seemed to be related to the fact that the residents of Cairns have had no real input into the size, cost and site of the Precinct. He suggested that our Council is weak and if they had any real strength they would take the money offered by Federal and State Government and tell them that the residents of Cairns will decide when, how and where we build our Precinct. Apparently, he feels we have been dictated to by the State Government and it's essentially none of their business what we do with the money.
An interesting point of view but not one I share. As far as I'm concerned, the proposal put to the other tiers of government was pretty detailed and the money was given to us based on that information. They would both be well within their rights to retract the offer if the deal changes. It would work the same way in any business proposal.
Second up to speak was the CEO of Sea Swift. He stated early on that he is a new resident of the region and has a vested interest in the outcome of this decision. Fair enough, honesty is always welcome. His view was that the shipping areas of our foreshore are not big enough and expansion will be necessary when our population reaches 500 thousand in approximately 50 years. That's not taking into account the one million our population will possibly get to in 100 odd years. Most areas with large shipping ports reclaim land when expansion is required. We can't. We do have the capacity to grow 2 to 3 times larger than our existing facilities but that's it.
Frankly, when our population reaches one million we will have already expanded ports in Mourilyan and Innisfail to accommodate the growth and hopefully, shipping will be supplemented by many and varied forms of transportation not yet thought of today. In one hundred years nothing will be the same. Any Arts Precinct we build will be obsolete by then anyway. It seems pointless to plan that far into the future. The 50 year target of 500 thousand is more appropriate. Growth of that scale will require additional shipping space but at less that double our current population, surely that would only necessitate double the current facilities? Even if it's higher, three times what we have should more than suffice.
Next up was Bob Manning, former head of Ports North. He spent the first half of his Power Point presentation (did I mentioned that the first three speakers all used them?) rationalising his former role and the decisions made while he was in charge. He never once mentioned that he was responsible for the sale of the Yacht Club. Probably because he knew it wouldn't go down well. Then the second half of his presentation was centred around the need for Cairns to have the ability to expand it's Naval presence.
As the second biggest Naval base in Australia we have the potential to grow that industry and (using my current favourite word) diversify. What he never got around to letting the public know was the following two facts. 1) He was responsible for gifting Admiralty Island to the Dept of National Parks and Wildlife. This island was originally slatted for Naval activity but after Bob publicly stated the need would not ever exist here in Cairns...he gave it away. 2) That the Navy have recently leased 16 hectares of land beside their current facility, for expansion purposes. This is deemed to be sufficient (by the Navy) for the next 50 years at least. Both interesting facts I would have thought. Both important information to give out on an 'information night' and neither passed the lips of one person present.
Last to speak was Mayor Val Schier. The only one without a Power Point to stuff up, she was very wobbly and unsure at the start. I am still not sure if that was due to the chill in the air from cranked up air-conditioning or the hostile crowd just got to her. She stated all of the facts regarding the costing of the facility. It will cost $1.5 million per year to upkeep. Currently it costs us 1.4 million for the Civic Theatre, a difference of 100 thousand. The first stage would include a 400 seat theatre, a 1000 plus seat theatre (which could be connected together), rehearsal spaces, sound room, backstage facilities and the plaza surrounding it. The cost for this would be $180 million. The cost for Cairns Regional Council would be 33 million. Borrowed over 20 years, it would not impact on rates at all. The site was given to Council by Ports North, all alternative sites have been vetoed and an entire Council voted unanimously to support the current proposal. Sounds pretty straightforward to me.
During the course of the night, when a statement was made by one of the speakers that the crowd agreed with they would clap. Most of those comments were regarding the need for using the land as future possible port development. During the Mayors speech she said one particular thing that resonated with me. I was not quick enough to write it down but it was along the lines of....With a Cultural Precinct on the foreshore of our city Cairns would once again have an attraction that would re-invigorate and enliven our city. My response? I clapped. One other person decided to join me. The Mayor thanked the two supporters she had up the back and that said more about the attendance to the meeting than anything else could.
Question time came next and at this point, it was time to leave. The attacks to the Mayor could be heard further down the street as I headed to the car and nothing being said was too surprising.
I went along to this meeting in the hope I could find out answers to the few questions I have regarding this facility. When will the choice of designs be available for public viewing? Is Stage 2, with the museum and South Sea Islander exhibition space, still part of the plans and how far off will they be? What is the current prediction for work to commence on this site? Could we possibly work hard to ensure local tenders for construction of the facility get preference? I had plenty of questions. None of which I felt comfortable in that environment asking. To the best of my knowledge, a debate of this kind should include one speaker for the project, followed by one against, then one for........etc. Having three against, all with the same reasoning, makes a mockery of this process.
I would like the next forum, and the organiser is promising more, to invite TTNQ, Advance Cairns, Ports North and the Navy. This would ensure a fair and even picture could be created of the entire project. Perhaps the decision would still be made that the Precinct is unsuitable in it's current position. Maybe Cairns will miss out on the first development of this scale in more years than I care to remember. At least the decision will be made with ALL the FACTS and not just through opinion.
Thursday night at 10.30 p.m. I found myself at Havanas enjoying a cup of hot chocolate, the music and the atmosphere. Looking around me, I spotted several well known faces so took it upon myself to interrupt their meals and ask them their opinion on the Precinct. I spoke with the owner Brett. His staff. Rick Montgomery of Johnno's and Music City fame, Gabby Thomasz(organiser of the Ukelele Festival), Tim Grau and several patrons who were strangers to me (not anymore!).
The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the Precinct. It was stated that Cairns is bland, colourless and one even went so far as to say that we could not call ourselves a city, not even a town....we had reverted to village status. A comment was made that TTNQ and Advance Cairns, while supporting this venue, very often ignore the nightlife of Cairns. The focus for both of these groups is seen to be the standard business hours of nine to five. On reflection I would have to agree with that sentiment. A suggestion that the Cultural Precinct feed into the Convention Centre and then the entire of Lake Street be filled with cafe and restaurant facilities that feature live music, giving Cairns city centre a New Orleans/ Amsterdam feel. This would allow patrons to wander along the street, stopping for coffee, cake or tapas along the way, enjoying the various forms of music we are lucky enough to have in abundance in this region. Frankly, I love that idea. Apparently licensing regulations are so strict it would be very difficult to achieve this outcome but we should at least give it a go. This street has become the focal point for the arts community with exhibition spaces and music currently taking up space here, it's not too bold a stretch to imagine this being expanded all the way along.
Two of those I chatted to had just come from an event at Jute Theatre, one from the Waifs concert which was sold out, one came from a local production put on at the Rhondo Theatre. At each of the events they attended, the crowd was far bigger than the one at the Cultural Precinct information night which just goes to show you how busy and vibrant our arts community is. With over 50 arts organisations in this region alone, we have ample reason to build them, and us, a venue on a large scale. The arts has received very little substantial funding opportunities in the Far North. We have an active arts community that deserve a large local injection of confidence in them.
The schools will pay less for their awards nights. Currently paying $25-30'000 for the hire of the Convention Centre. Bentley Park College can't fit the entire school in so parents are missing out on seeing their child participate in the night. They can't afford to hire it twice so the situation will remain the same until a new, cheaper alternative is made available to them.
There are plenty of very good reasons to start work on designing and building our Precinct and only one against. The site is free, the government has thrown in a huge amount towards it, the Navy doesn't need the space, long term forecasts suggest that shipping will NOT be our main freight option and even if it is there is space to grow up to three times it's current size which is ample for any realistic future growth models.
I will be attending the next 'Information Session', hoping that the bias will not be quite so obvious and that more people attend with views apart from the negative ones. I would then like to ask the questions I still have written on my notebook. Until then, I urge you all to do the research and keep an open mind. The Precinct is something that I obviously want but that doesn't negate those who want it stopped. If there are reasons BESIDES the expansion of the terminal and the cost, both of which have proven to be false, I will be much more accepting of the opposition to this development.