Willow Court forum ends in farce

A WORKING party has been formed to assist the Derwent Valley Council with the redevelopment of the Willow Court historic site. Establishing the new group was the only solid outcome of tonight’s community forum which attracted 97 people to the council social rooms.

The meeting provided few answers to the many questions surrounding the stalled redevelopment project and failed to gain any official acknowledgement that the council’s seven-year-long approach had been found wanting.

Mayor Tony Nicholson opened the forum with a message of welcome and then disappeared to the back of the room, leaving the running of the meeting to facilitator Adam Saddler. Valley Vision project manager Ian Brown (who was introduced as the council economic development officer) bore the brunt of more than an hour of sustained questioning from the likes of Damian Bester, Anne Salt, Wayne Shoobridge, Ngaire Glover, Mark Bennett, Tim Jenkins, John Shoobridge and others.

Mr Bester asked the first question after Mr Brown said more than 100 jobs had been created by the council at Willow Court, and elicited the answer that few if any of those jobs were ongoing. Mrs Glover asked what costs had been associated with the various jobs and Mr Brown undertook to provide those details later.

A brief history of the council’s ownership of the site was given, including news that the former administration building has changed ownership six times. Electricity supply remains one of the stumbling blocks, along with the loss of government funding. The council hopes to raise further funds by selling more of the historic site to private developers.

Mrs Glover asked what conditions had been applied when earlier subdivisions had occurred on the site, in particular with reference to roads and access. Mr Brown said negotiations were ongoing, which drew spirited responses from the New Norfolk Lions Club and the Derwent Valley Masonic Lodge, who said their buildings at Willow Court had no formal access and their members were relying on the goodwill of neighbouring property owner Haydn Pearce. The council has never adequately explained why it sold sealed roads and footpaths when it subdivided the site, effectively leaving some properties with no access.

Mr Brown took issue with a statement by Mr Bester to the effect that the council at one time had $4 million in hand and this could have been used to make a start on the redevelopment but had been squandered. Mr Bester said it had been stated that the council earned $2.4 million from the sale of buildings and $1.5 million in government funds. Mr Brown said this was not correct and asked Mr Bester if he would like to make another guess. A voice said that figure had been published in the Derwent Valley Gazette and in reply Mr Brown said that did not make it correct. When asked, he said the sale of buildings to Barbara Adams had netted $2.238 million, which drew howls of derision from the crowd. The proceeds of the sale of a former workshop building on the site have never been publicly declared.

Former councillor Wayne Shoobridge said a lack of information had been an issue even when he was on the Derwent Valley Council. He asked when the site would be open to visitors and what was being done to preserve it in the meantime. Mr Brown said the site could be open 18 months after the redevelopment project was under way, but could not say when that would be.

Security was raised as an issue by many at the meeting, including one remark that before long Willow Court would be merely a pile of heritage bricks.

Mr Layton Hodgetts expressed the view of many in the audience when he said the agenda seemed to have been designed to cover a meeting held over an entire weekend, rather than the 90 minutes allowed by the council. He suggested that the meeting move on to discussing the future rather than going over the past.

Anne Salt then asked how much money was left in the Willow Court fund, which was revealed to be about $350,000. Mr Brown would not be drawn on how long that money would last. Mrs Salt remarked that it would probably last about seven months based on current spending.

Mr Bester pointed out that Mr Brown had been bearing the brunt of the questioning, and asked where the mayor and general manager were. He said said all three should all be at the front of the room. General manager Stephen Mackey promptly joined Mr Brown but the mayor remained nowhere to be seen, despite calls for his presence.

Several members of the audience then raised the prospect of handing the Willow Court site back to the state government. Mr Mackey said he did not support that view, and said he believed the project was now at the “sharp end” with all the preparatory work that had been done.

Mr Shoobridge called on the council to re-establish its Willow Court Committee, which drew a mixed response. Mr Mackey suggested a working party instead, and when put to the vote there were 33 people in favour and four against. Thirteen people then put their names down for the working party, which will meet in a fortnight.

The issue of funding came up again, at which point an endorsed Labor Party candidate for Lyons, Nick Wright, made himself known and said he had been advised that the state government grant of $750,000 was “still on the table”.

Summing up the meeting, facilitator Adam Saddler said it appeared that security was the top community priority for the historic site, along with increased transparency and communication from the council.

Mayor Tony Nicholson reappeared and said the evening had provided a good opportunity to listen to what had been done at Willow Court. He said the meeting had not produced the number of suggestions he had been expecting, and he rejected what he described as “recriminations” over the current situation. Cr Nicholson said information about the project had always been freely available. “BULLSHIT” was the unified response from many in the crowd, including Mr Bester, who leapt to his feet and demanded to know why he had to resort to a Freedom of Information request to gain access to the minutes of the Willow Court Committee. “Sit down Damian,” the mayor replied. Mr Bester shouted his question several times more, quite rudely pointing his finger at the major. “Because you wanted to,” Cr Nicholson said. His response drew several boos from the crowd and prompted a further outburst from Mr Bester, calling on the mayor to resign.

One Comment

  1. why does someone not do something like make new norfolk the centre for antiques and collectables in tas. it is close to hobart. there could be an auction in one of the buildings a few timesa year and market set up in the grounds. also encouragement for more of these type of shops in the town. what a great town for this sort of thing with the derwent river and a lot of old english style settings and houses. even some of the old homesteads might be open to the public a few times a year

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