No prizes for guessing where I was all afternoon. Believe me when I say it was ALL afternoon. The Council vote on the Cairns Entertainment Precinct was scheduled for 2 p.m and I left the Council building at 5 p.m. Proceedings didn't actually go that long but by the time I caught up with many of those who attended......the day was over.
I turned up this afternoon at 12.39. Precisely. I was early because of a few things. I had my two eldest children with me and mum had agreed to babysit while the meeting went on upstairs and I wanted to get some idea of who was attending and what their position was.
The first person I came across was Jack Wilke-Jans who is running in Division 9 at the upcoming election. He was attending (in his words) 'for practice' and also came as an interested member of the arts community. His view was very positive for the Precinct and he was hopeful that the vote would be yes.
Next to enter the cafe area was Barry Neale from Residents Against Crime and Cairns Community Council Watch. A strong opposer to the project he and I had a wonderful conversation about the entire proposal. While we do not see eye to eye on it, we are in agreement that changes are desperately required in the consultation arena of Council office. We both think that those in charge of consultation procedures are ineffective and are not adequately doing the job. We also agree that the miscommunication on the proposal has led to misinformation, we just disagree on what that information is (which illustrates the point very well really.)
I then had a chat with Brendan Fitzgerald, Katter's Australian Party candidate for Barron River. He has another take entirely and believes that the project should be staged differently. He would prefer to see the smaller theatre built first but more than that, would like to see a 'School of the Arts' incorporated into JCU, feeding the Precinct with potential stars in the artistic arena. This proposed school would include all aspects of stage technician, musicians, dancers, play-writes, actors etc.....essentially a local NIDA. Frankly, I think it's a brilliant idea. The opportunity to change the order of development was not on the agenda so could not occur but the proposal for a performing arts school is one I would support wholeheartedly.
After quick hello's to Rob Pyne, Kirsten Lesina, Julia Leu, Mayor Val Schier, Janine Aitken, Tanya Brooks-Cooper, Stuart Traill, Darren Hunt, Mal Floyd, Tony Hillier, Gavin King, Locco and Daniel Strudwick, had a very brief interview with Channels 7 and 9, then up to the 3rd floor (after getting stuck in the lift door not watching where I was going. Thankfully Gavin, Locco and the entire 7 and 9 News crews saved me from being swallowed whole .)
The Council Chambers were packed. I'm not kidding. It was full to bursting. They even added an extra row of seats but still it was standing room only. I started off seated, right up the front, but elected after a short while to stand as the hostility in the room was pretty confining.
Proceedings began with the Mayor making a very short statement in welcome to all those who were present. She then mentioned that at just past 12 p.m last night she had received a message from Sno stating he would not be attending as he was flying overseas. That statement elicited sarcastic laughter and a few loud whispers stating that the meeting should have been cancelled. Val chose to ignore it and moved on. The traditional owners were acknowledged and the first motion was under-way.
It spoke to the marketing of the Precinct and was a straightforward motion. Di Forsyth spoke for it and was quick and succinct, not so for the negative speaker Nancy Lanskey. She took the opportunity to complain about the incredible speed of this proposal, argued that there is no rush and it felt rushed and said that the community objected to the Precinct being shoved down their throat. Val said she had no idea what Nancy was talking about......they voted, all in favour bar Nancy.
Margaret Cochrane was next to speak, she put forward several amendments to the original motion. These included; stating that Council would give 'in principal' support, changing it to include Council where it stated that the State Government would approve based on the business case, ensuring it had Federal Government support and getting guaranteed funds from the State. This motion did not get up. The crowd were restless and many called out in disgust. It was time to squirm a little.
Then the Precinct Manager Linda Cardew spoke. She stated that she had been to Anthony Albanese's office the preceding week. His staff told her that there was no guarantee that the 40 million allocated Federally could be postponed or extended beyond June next year. The money has been allocated from a specific fund which is to be used 'in regional centres where it will build infrastructure that will create jobs'. That being the case it could possibly be reallocated to another centre if Cairns did no use it.
The State Government agreed to fast-track the final approval for the allocation promised from them and suggested that Council reiterate the fact that the Precinct could tie in with the Convention Centre when arguing it's case as part of the business plan.
The Precinct report from Bob Minnikin of Savills came next. The end result was that the figures are good, the numbers are realistic and true, the staging is necessary and the borrowings are affordable. The report ended with a statement that the cost of the first stage has some scope to move downwards but will not move upwards. He seemed pretty adamant about that.
Rob Pyne then reignited the energy in the room with his speech, arguing that this decision was not and should not be a political one. This decision is about the community. All of it.
Julia Leu spoke in favour. She said the extensive planning, the need and the evaluation were enough to convince her it was a good project. She also mentioned that many other projects in the past had not gained full support from the community prior to being built but have worked out in strong favour of all residents. She urged Councillors to vote for the future of the region.
Linda Cooper believes that we need to have this but doesn't like the ongoing costs being passed on to future generations. She would not vote positively based on the lack of a business plan and no definitive numbers. Cost blow-out remains too high a risk.
This was spoken to and it was again said that the cost will reduce possibly, not increase. Linda was unconvinced.
Di Forsyth spoke for the Precinct. She mentioned the long wait on this and said that it's time now to just get on with it.
Nancy Lanskey said that this is the first project up for development by Council which would not make money. She stated that it is all about the cost of the project, the potential for blow-out and the reliance on regional growth which may not come to fruition. Too many variables.
Val pointed out that Council subsidise many local amenities and facilities that benefit the community and it is the job of Council to do so.
Margaret Cochrane agreed that the subject of a performance space had been floating around for a long time. She wanted to know why Whites Shed was in the first stage as her belief is that the two theatres should be built concurrently, both being needed. She also worried that community groups would not be able to afford the cost of hiring the facility and things like the Eisteddfod would not be able to access it.
Advice was given that Whites Shed is heritage listed and in very poor condition. If construction begins beside it there is a strong possibility it will simply collapse and that should be avoided. Hence the fact it is included in the first stage.
Paul Gregory mentioned that each Councillor was elected to represent their Division first and the broader community next. He said that this was a tough call for all Councillors to try and balance Divisional issues with community issues. Division 1 is in need of better sporting facilities and parks, making this Precinct a 'want' rather than a 'need'.
Alan Blake shared that view. He agreed that the Civic Theatre needs to be replaced but thought this project was much too 'grandiose'. His concern was about over-running costs and the poor condition of the CBD. He continually mentioned that Council were 'bullied' by the State to accept the land and we should not be dictated to. Whites Shed is also ugly and should not be considered important. He said that the 'stuff' inside it would fit on the back of a ute and should be moved elsewhere and the building itself was decrepit.
Councillors where then reminded that the decision to accept the parcel of land was made by Council in a unanimous vote in July last year.
Kirsten Lesina then summed up. She said that the need is there. This is not a want. We are looking at the future and the community needs it.
Then....the vote. 5 for, 5 against. Val used her casting vote to tip the scales and the motion to allocate Council funds to the Cairns Entertainment Precinct was carried.
And the crowd went wild! That's not actually far from the truth. The noise was deafening and frankly, I used the confusion and chaos to get out of there. During the meeting one person evicted themselves by shouting his opinion all the way to the door and two others were warned three times then told they would be asked to leave if they spoke again.
Now what? Well, afterwards I spoke for a few minutes to Ian Thomas who is running for Mayor. He was disappointed but not discouraged by the result.
Barry and I ran into each other again and his only statement was 'This is not over yet, not by a long shot' and I believe him.
Several members of the Arts community (including Ruby Boussard and Avril Quaill), were very happy with the outcome but like me would have preferred it to be clearer.
My children were just bored.
Now, we wait. Next week the State Finance Committee will vote to allocate us the promised money. The business case report will be complete. Barry and his friends will be organising the next public meeting (set for early November at this stage). The Councillors who voted 'no' can tell their constituents that they support the Divisional needs before the entire community's needs and those who voted 'yes' can tell theirs that the jobs are on the way (and Sno will have some serious explaining to do).
This was the crux of the matter. It might not be over, there might be more bumps along the way, but today's result must be adhered to and this Precinct will be built. I'm not sure that I'd call it an outright win, but it's certainly a big step in the right direction.