Community members are concerned that there has been little improvement in Council community facilities in Daylesford despite 10 years of planning for a community hub. After Council abandoned the Hepburn Hub at the Rex project last year, it was expected there would be a consultation process and a new plan. So far that has not occurred.
10 years of waiting
Planning for a community hub at the Town Hall commenced a decade ago. After a long period of community consultation, a plan to redevelop the Daylesford Town Hall and the adjacent area at the back of the Hall, including the pool was agreed by Council in 2015. Total cost was estimated at $9.5 million, including upgrades to the swimming pool.
The community hub at the Town Hall would have seen the restoration of the Town Hall, a new larger library, community spaces, an art space, a visitor information centre and staff accommodation and reception for the community.
However, there was significant community disagreement about the scale of the building, modifications to the swimming pool area, lack of parking, heritage concerns for the Town Hall restoration and the potential for cost over runs. At the time, while Council agreed to proceed with the hub at the Town Hall it did so in a split decision with significant unresolved community concern and opposition.
A Plan for the Rex
Not long after, in 2016, the owners of the Rex arcade in Vincent Street flagged their intention to redevelop the site and terminate remaining rentals, including the cinema. At the time the Daylesford Community Theatre had built up a highly successful cinema program in the arcade.
The then Council Chief Executive, Aaron van Egmond, negotiated an option to purchase the Rex and an associated property at 8 Duke Street for $6.4 million. Businesses in the arcade, including the cinema, were put on monthly contracts while plans for renovation were finalised.
Following a month of consultation with the community, Council agreed to a new plan for a community hub at the Rex and upgrades to the pool and the Town Hall and the senior citizen’s area at an estimated cost of $1.25 million for the Rex renovation and $2.15 million for the pool and Town Hall, including biomass cogeneration.
The total cost of the Rex and Town Hall project, including the purchase of the land and renovation, was estimated at $9.75 million to be funded by property sales, retained earnings, grants and borrowings of up to $3.4 million.
The Rex part of the project was to include a library, office accommodation, public toilets and a customer service centre. Subsequently, following a community campaign, Council agreed to include an auditorium for the cinema.
Poor management and cost blow outs
But as it turned out, the project was massively under costed and poorly managed leading to long delays, progressive requirements for additional funding and planning approvals. Over time, community stakeholders became frustrated and concerned – particularly the Daylesford Community Theatre group.
In June 2018 a new Chief Executive Officer was appointed to Hepburn Shire. Following an audit, the Council self-referred the project to IBAC and subsequently the Local Government Inspectorate commenced an investigation. Council agreed a new budget 0f 6.4 million for the renovation of the Rex (up from $1.25 million) in February 2020 and then lifted it again to $7.1 million when Hutchinson Builders was appointed in September following a public tender process.
Once again further problems with the building emerged and Hutchinson and Council could not reach agreement about costs, leading to Hutchinson withdrawing from the project a year later in 2021 with little further progress.
With a yet another CEO and a new Council, the budget was revised upward again and the project went out to tender only for Council to find that that the budget would have to be increased even further when the tender submissions and other costs came in higher than expected.
In November 2021, Council officers recommended that the budget for the Rex renovation be increased to 9.7 million and the tender accepted. This did not include additional sustainability works, fit out and making good the external facade of the building, nor the original cost of purchasing the building of $6.4 million. The total cost of the Rex had risen to at least $16 million – well over double the original estimate.
None of this was helped by delays and disruption caused by COVID in 2020 and 2021 and the significant costs associated with devastating storms in 2021.
The Rex abandoned
Concerned about cost blow outs and further delays and risk, in a split decision, a relatively newly elected Council rejected Council officer’s recommendations.
Instead, the Council decided to sell the Rex and restart the planning process for community facilities, including providing assistance to the cinema. The CEO was directed to prepare a scope for a planning project for staff accommodation and community facilities and work with the Cinema group to find temporary and permanent solutions for the community cinema.
Depending on the funds raised from the sale of the Rex it is likely that losses on the project will exceed $3 million with nothing to show for it and 10 years delay while the community has waited for improved facilities.
Calls for accountability and a new plan
Not surprisingly, community members are frustrated, angry and demanding answers as to how this could have happened. A situation not helped by the long delay of the Local Government Inspectorate in releasing its report on the matter, despite repeated calls for the report to be made public.
A petition signed by over 1100 members has called on the State Government to replace Hepburn Councillors with an administrator, a Rethink the Rex Group has formed and a significant public campaign to get Council to reconsider its decision to sell the Rex is under way.
Despite the directions to the CEO in November last year, Council has been slow to set a positive agenda to address community concerns following its decision to abandon the Rex.
It was widely expected Council would move quickly to develop a plan that set priorities for community facilities including the library, the swimming pool, a community auditorium and cinema, youth facilities and staff accommodation.
It is surprising that four months later, Council has had little to say about a community consultation strategy, a planning process and timelines to address the community’s concerns.