SOUTH Gippsland Shire Council’s administration panel has cancelled building the already council-funded Agnes Falls cantilevered viewing platform despite strong, long-term community support for the project.
The three-member panel voted unanimously to “not proceed to construction” of the project, at the council’s ordinary meeting held at Leongatha on Wednesday November 20, 2019, mainly because of its location on Parks Victoria-controlled land.
The project had previously been scheduled to be put out to tender early in 2020 with works expected to start on the cantilever at the Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve by mid-year.
Friends of Agnes Falls acting president and secretary Kathy Whelan and vice president Peter Lee, the main instigators and among the staunchest supporters of the project, said they were “absolutely devastated” by the panel’s decision.
“We’re feeling very dejected that the funding allocated by the South Gippsland Shire Council two years ago for the construction phase of the Agnes Falls cantilever viewing platform project, was removed by a vote from the three appointed administrators,” Ms Whelan said.
“What exactly will the panel do with the $460,000 left from the original $520,000 the council set aside in good faith for the viewing platform, after $60,000 has already been spent on a design and engineering specifications, right down to the size and colour of the bolts?” she asked.
“Now we’re going to take a deep breath and then start on Plan B, which will include approaching our state and federal politicians again for their help to get grant funding for this important local tourism infrastructure project.
“Parks Victoria’s heads will also be asked to ‘please inspect your budget again’ to find the resources to pay for the cantilever, because up until now they were virtually being gifted the money for it,” Ms Whelan said.
“We as the Friends will see, too, if we can find a generous philanthropist or a company that would like some kudos, to assist us with sourcing funding so the viewing platform can be built for the benefit of the 35,000 and more visitors who now come to see the Agnes Falls each year.”
Ms Whelan and Mr Lee made one of three public presentations to the shire’s administration panel before last Wednesday’s meeting, all calling for the administrators to reject the agenda’s recommendations to stop the project.
Disappointed that three images she had supplied of the Agnes Falls, including an artist’s impression of the proposed cantilevered platform and the current lookout, were not shown during her speech, Ms Whelan appealed to the panel to “rethink such a short-sighted decision [not to build the platform] if only for the benefit of the tourism economy in South Gippsland.
“The Friends of Agnes Falls’ Facebook page has had more than 4000 reactions and comments since we were told the news that the platform wasn’t going ahead as planned.
“I’d like to confirm the large number of emails of support we’ve had from groups like Foster Rotary, the Foster Chamber of Commerce and the Toora Lions, too,” she said.
“You’ve got the community against you, administrators, on this one.”
Ms Whelan said the platform was “the lynch-pin” of a wider project detailed in Parks Victoria’s management plan to “upgrade the car parking area and footpaths, the seating and signage”, that was “contingent” on the platform.
“The jewel in the crown in the cantilever,” she said.
Former shire councillor and mayor Don Hill also made a presentation to the panel on the Agnes Falls project among other matters, asking were “the administrators working through a list of previous council decisions to reverse them?” citing the recently canned equestrian centre proposed for Stony Creek as another example.
Mr Hill also questioned the panel’s reason of not spending shire funds on projects on land out of municipal control, arguing that ratepayers’ money had gone into the Long Jetty at Port Welshpool and is going into the Great Southern Rail Trail.
“What about the Leongatha netball courts refurbishment, a project costing about $500,000 to ratepayers, and also not on council land?” he said.
Mr Hill rhetorically asked what the difference was between spending money on staffing the shire’s visitor information centres and “on a project like Agnes Falls that has the same goal of attracting the tourist dollar.”
Former councillor Matt Sherry spoke in support of the Agnes Falls cantilever as well, pointing out that “all nine councillors voted in 2016” and “all six new councillors in 2017, so 15 democratically elected councillors unanimously supported the project.
“Now three undemocratically elected administrators who live hundreds of kilometres away may vote to remove the funding for the project,” he said.
“I urge you [the panel] to vote against the recommendation.”
Administrator Christian Zahra said, after moving to adopt the recommendation not to continue or fund the cantilevered platform, he wanted “to put on the record that the Friends of Agnes Falls have been very strong advocates for this project.
“They have done a great deal of work over a long period of time, and obviously believe very passionately in it,” he said.
“I will not be voting to provide funding, which does not mean I don’t think the project has merit.
“The funding should come from another source and the project should be referred back to Parks Victoria,” he said.
“The council has tried to obtain funds from two sources, including the state and federal governments, and no other significant project like this one has been funded by the council in the past five years.
“It’s unusual that a project would have sought and received 100 per cent funding from the council,” Mr Zahra said.
“I am concerned that funding this project would create expectation that the council would fund other such projects around the shire, which has many other beautiful areas,” he said.
“Agnes Falls is not the only pretty or scenic reserve in the municipality.”
Other parts of the recommendation unanimously adopted by the panel included providing copies of the final cantilevered viewing platform design to both the Friends of Agnes Falls and to Parks Victoria.
Administration panel chair Julie Eisenbise said “it should be made clear that the review on the Agnes Falls cantilevered lookout project was not to discredit the project, but it was necessary for us to reflect on who should be responsible for funding the project.
“The Friends of Agnes Falls should be commended for the power of work they do to promote the Agnes Falls Scenic Reserve, and the council will continue to support them to seek alternate funding opportunities for the construction of the cantilevered lookout,” she said.
“The council needs to prioritise its capital investments, and the list of projects desired by the community will always exceed the finite resources at its disposal.
“It was considered that funding the construction of the cantilevered lookout on Parks Victoria land may set an unmanageable expectation that Council would make improvements to other land and assets under Parks Victoria management.”
GOVERNMENT MUST BACK PLATFORM – O’BRIEN
Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien has called on the Victorian Government, saying that it “must step in to support the development of a cantilevered viewing platform at Agnes Falls in the wake of South Gippsland Shire’s decision to withdraw funding.
“I am disappointed by the decision of South Gippsland Shire to withdraw $460,000 to complete the project, however Agnes Falls is ultimately the responsibility of Parks Victoria and the project should be funded by the state government,” he said.
“Anyone who has been to Agnes Falls will know it’s a hidden gem in South Gippsland and is already a great tourism attraction,” Mr O’Brien said.
“The geography of the place though, makes it difficult to see the full splendour of the falls and the cantilevered viewing platform out into the gorge would be a spectacular attraction for our region.
“This is a great project and will ultimately help bolster the tourism offerings in South Gippsland.
“I’m disappointed that the Shire has reversed its decision, not because it has a responsibility to fund what is a state asset, but because the project was proceeding and has been on the shire’s books for two years.
“Nonetheless, it is correct to say that the area is owned by the state government and I’m now calling on the government to provide this relatively small amount of funding to deliver an important project that will bring tourists and development to our region.”