AGNES Falls’ long-awaited and already started cantilevered viewing platform project may itself fall should South Gippsland Shire Council’s administration panel vote today to withdraw funding already budgeted for its construction.
The Friends of Agnes Falls say they are “absolutely gutted” after being told on Thursday November 14, 2019 the council’s ordinary meeting agenda for Wednesday November 20 includes a recommendation that the project be scrapped.
Almost $60,000 of council funding totalling $520,000, unanimously allocated in two amounts to what was known as the Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve Development Project in 2016 and 2017, has already been spent on a design for the platform.
The agenda advises the panel not to build the Agnes Falls Cantilevered Lookout “due to the asset being located on Parks Victoria land”, and to avoid setting “an unmanageable expectation that Council would make improvements to other lands under Parks Victoria management.”
The recommendation also notes that “previous attempts to secure funding for the cantilever project from the Federal and State Government have been unsuccessful” and suggests the $460,000 remaining in this year’s purse be reallocated “to a project(s) in the 2020/21 Annual Budget.”
The Friends of Agnes Falls are to be given “the reasons for Council’s decision”, “support … to seek alternate funding opportunities for the construction of the cantilever”, and, along with Parks Victoria, a copy of the platform’s “final” design.
Friends of Agnes Falls stalwart Kathy Whelan said the shire’s acting chief executive officer Bryan Sword “rang me as a courtesy at 6 pm on Thursday to tell me [about the recommendation not to go ahead with the cantilever] before the council meeting’s agenda came out on Friday.
“After waiting patiently for over six years for this project to come to fruition, and the $520,000 allocation made unanimously by all nine councillors when the council was cohesive and functioning, the Friends of Agnes Falls are absolutely gutted, as are many members of the local community,” she said.
“The council clearly thought the Agnes Falls platform was a worthy project to fund then, and tenders were due to be called to build it early in 2020!
“Tourism is one of the main economic drivers in South Gippsland and, when the Friends of Agnes Falls formed in late-2012, between 3000 and 4000 people would go to see the falls each year,” Ms Whelan said.
“Now there are 35,000 visitors a year to the Agnes Falls because of the Friends’ promotion work and our information stalls, brochures and postcards.
“Twenty years ago, the Toora Progress Association came up with a proposal to extend the existing lookout at the Falls, which didn’t go ahead at the time but shows that the wish for better facilities there goes back a long way,” Ms Whelan said.
“The Friends worked to get a $180,000 grant from the Regional Growth Fund (RGF) in 2013 and a new toilet block, a picnic shelter and tables were built and installed in the Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve in 2014.
“A Friends member suggested that a cantilevered platform would give the best view of the falls, and Parks Victoria added some money to what we had left over from the RGF grant to have a feasibility study done, and the result was shown to be positive,” she said.
“Parks Victoria funded a concept design, and together with the Friends, made a public presentation to the council in mid-2014, which also fitted in well with the council’s Corner Inlet Tourism Development Strategy.”
Ms Whelan said the Friends of Agnes Falls very nearly got a Regional Development Victoria grant around that time, but a change of government saw the funding criteria also alter and the available money went elsewhere in the state.
“At that stage the Long Jetty was still a dream and yet the council put $1 million of ratepayers’ money towards that project on non-council controlled land, and now it says that’s why it won’t keep going with the Agnes Falls project,” she said.
“The Great Southern Rail Trail project is not on council-owned land either, so this argument doesn’t hold much water in our view.”
Ms Whelan urged the community to “please send a short email to the administrators before the meeting at 2 pm on Wednesday November 20 in support of the cantilever project going ahead.
“There may be a slim chance to overturn this short-sighted decision if we bombard them with emails!”Friends of Agnes Falls and former shire councillors Don Hill and Matthew Sherry were scheduled to make presentations on the cantilever project issue to the administration panel on Wednesday morning, before the ordinary council meeting.