A local, ‘Rethink the Rex’ group has formed to halt the sale of the Rex building in Vincent Street to allow for community consultation and alternatives to be considered.
From its origins as a Cinema last century, more recent community campaigns to restore the Rex go back at least 20 years when a group led by former citizen of the year Michael Huggard argued the Rex should be restored as a cinema and community space, including a social enterprise café, hospitality training, a focus on made in Daylesford retail and a bowling alley. While the Rex owner at the time was supportive, the Council was not and the proposal did not proceed.
Subsequently, the highly successful, volunteer led Daylesford Cinema was established in the Rex in under a lease agreement as part of an arcade development. But by 2016 the Arcade development had failed and the Cinema was at risk of losing its home. Council then bought the Rex to establish a community hub.
The community hub had been planned for the Town Hall precinct following extensive consultation. But Council suddenly changed direction and bought the Rex for the hub instead, with little further community consultation. The Cinema group took the opportunity to add their cinema to the hub proposal which also included, a library, a social enterprise café, a hospitality training program and office space for Council staff.
The building was purchased for $6.3 million in 2016. It was initially anticipated that renovation costs would be less than $1 million. But the project was plagued with inadequate planning, long delays, and massive cost overruns. Despite Council Officers recommending the project continue, Council abandoned the project in late 2021 in a narrow vote when it became clear that renovation costs alone had blown out to $10 million. By then the café and hospitality training had been dropped.
Council has already spent around $9 million on the project. The sale is intended to recoup some of that loss but there had been no community consultation on the future of the hub or Rex.
The decision to abandon the hub project and sell the Rex without community consultation has led to a significant community backlash. Many in the community believe the Council is in grave danger of mismanaging the next steps for the Rex and the community hub. Over 1000 local residents have signed an online petition to sack the Council and appoint a competent administrator.
A new ‘Rethink the Rex’ group has now been convened by local resident Jules McDonald this month to consider options for the Rex. Ms McDonald said, “this is a big decision and Council needs to listen the community and provide an opportunity for community planning and engagement. To do otherwise will lead to lots of discontent.”
There has been widespread community concern about the planning, design, management and cost of the Rex over a number of years. There are many unanswered questions. No-one has yet been held accountable for the mismanagement of the Rex Project and the waste of community money. An independent review of the Rex Project by the Local Government Inspectorate has been under way for a number of years. However, it has has yet to be released. Whether Council will commission its own investigation remains unclear.
The new group recognises that there has been mismanagement and disastrous financial overruns but they argue that a number of alternative options for the Rex could be pursued, including partnering with other organizations to build and use the space, selling with conditions such as leasing back all or part of the building or building a new purpose-built facility. They believe that the process of selling should be delayed until a full community engagement process has been undertaken.
Mayor, Cr Tim Drylie, countered that Council had previously workshopped a range of scenarios, including renting and lease back options as part of considering cancelling the previous contract. He confirmed that, as part of the sale process, and in accordance with the Local Government Act, Council would undertake a Community Engagement process. “Officers are currently planning for this process and a further report will be presented to Council for consideration and determining any next steps. We expect this to take place in March/April of this year,” said Dr Drylie. “Community views on the sale of the building will be taken into account. ”
Part of Council’s determination at the 23 November 2021 meeting includes a requirement for officers to prepare a project scope for a new planning project to review possible solutions for community facilities and staff accommodation.
Cinema Group member, Gina Lyons, said “Council conducted extensive consultation with the community about a Hub back in 2014. This identified all of the components which should be in the Hub. There was further consultation in 2016 when the Council was considering purchasing the Rex. The community has been waiting four years for the Hub at the Rex to be completed. Major changes, such as abandoning the project and selling the building, should have been flagged with the community in advance because this is a 50-year project in which we all have a stake.”
The “Rethink the Rex” group plans to hold a community managed meeting (similar to the local bylaws public meeting in 2019) with a view to ensuring that the sale process is halted and an extensive community engagement process is instituted. The meeting is planned for March.