Just a few months ago, Cairns region was presented with an unprecedented opportunity involving over 100 million dollars of State and Federal funding and a ready made plan to build a large precinct near the waterfront. A facility primarily for locals, this was to provide work for those in the construction industry who have suffered with the loss of several large developer companies and would have gone on to provide up to 125 full time equivalent jobs once complete. The facility was to be a replacement for one which has been proven unsatisfactory and is becoming unworkable.
Cairns is known for the arts and it's contribution to the industry all over Australia. It is common knowledge that we have a plethora of talent and a need to nurture it and this facility would have provided that, along with training for those who wished to take on 'behind the scenes' roles in audio, lighting, stage management, choreography, playwriting and much more. While those jobs still exist, the scope for them to grow is very, very limited.
The main objections to the facility from local residents were three issues. First, the cost. Placed at almost $60 million , this cost would have been partly covered by a small increase in rates over 5 years, including the construction phase and the early operational phase. As a public facility, it would have had to be supplemented by Council for the term of it's life at slightly more than the current building, which as mentioned previously is no longer viable for it's intended use. However, unlike privately owned facilities such as the one proposed by Shangri La, local community groups and schools could have accessed and utilised the facility at an extremely low cost, further cementing it's role as a venue built for locals.
The second issue was a perceived lack of consultation. Residents failed to take into account the decades of planning by previous Councils and came to the conclusion that this was 'thrust' upon them without giving them a say at all. The numerous consultation and information sessions the scope of which have never been seen before were apparently not sufficient.
The third was the site itself. Situated just a few metres from the edge of the seafront, the most common thought appeared to be that it was going to take vital space away from what has now become known as our 'working port'. One company in particular took great pains to remind residents that the expansion of their business would be impeded by this development and that must not be permitted. While it was mentioned in response that the port would not be affected due to the 'buffer zone' which would remain intact, that information was reported much more quietly than the opposing view.
So, here we sit, 6 months later. State funding has been revoked, land offered for peppercorn rent given back, the plan voted down in Council chambers and Federal funding in doubt. It appears that the people have spoken. Shortly after the election, new Councillors and the new Mayor were given estimates of the cost of building a much smaller facility which would have a single use, rather than the grand plan previously offered. This cost was much more than they expected and as a result, no performing arts centre will be built in Cairns.....at least, not in the immediate future.
While this information saddened those who supported the CEP, it did not surprise those who followed the progress of the project and faced the opposition to it's construction. Today, the memory of the excitement the project provided and the incredible diversity of use it would have given the region is all that remains.
In Saturday's paper two stories gained my attention. One on the back of the front page announcing that Sea Swift has been sold. The company most vocal against the CEP. It is acknowledged that their opposition was based on the need for future expansion while noting that the article states expansion of two ports for their use, neither of which is Cairns. As a base, Cairns is still a priority and it is not stated in the article that this will change which is good news for the region. It then becomes the question of whether this business could not have continued to expand by utilising Cairns as it's primary ship building port and concurrently expanding it's presence in other ports of Australia. In fact, that is exactly what is happening, without the CEP.
The second story garnering another look, was one featuring the company which is a major shareholder in the new development about to commence in the CBD. With Woolworths as it's anchor store, the Central Park shopping development will be built in three stages, the third being the one which begs for attention. First stage of the $270 million development, a large shopping centre, directly opposite Cairns Central. Nothing odd there except perhaps the fact that Cairns will struggle to fill and support more retail outlets. The second stage, office space and and residential units. Again, nothing untoward in that part, except that the slowing of Cairns economy would suggest that office space is probably not required. Third stage.............a large hotel styled on the Versace model, Cairns' first 6 star hotel.
Why is this third stage standing out? Why is the fact that someone wants to invest in Cairns a negative thing? It goes to it's placement. According to the article, there will not be room on the Spence St site for this third stage...so......they are looking to build it in the immediate vicinity (or even on the site) the CEP would have been. Specifically; "built on one of the Ports North development sites between the Cairns Hilton and the Cairns Cruise Liner Terminal". Incredible!
It should be noted that this article mentions that the sale of it's commercial and residential space is required before stage 3 could begin, an estimated 6 years away. That said, if this company, or others like it, are permitted to build on the same site deemed unsuitable for a public facility due to it's proximity to a working port, I for one will not be impressed.
While the CEP and all that went with it (a bridge over to the Convention Centre, a museum, connecting car park etc..) is no longer an option, the reasons for it's demise must surely still exist? Or are weary locals actually telling the truth when they say that Cairns is open slather to developers and exceedingly unkind to those wishing for a better lifestyle? It's certainly how it appears.
I note also that nobody is questioning the new Council on the current status of the sports stadium many seemed to prefer. Does anyone even care anymore?