Councillor questions Willow Court ownership plan

The overflowing public gallery at last week’s council meeting.

LONG-TERM ownership of the section of Willow Court presently under Derwent Valley Council control is unclear as the council pursues an arts and culture concept proposed by the Salamanca Arts Centre and the recently-established Derwent Valley Arts, and the first stage of the New Norfolk Distillery project.

Among several decisions about Willow Court at last week’s council meeting, it was decided to lease three buildings to the New Norfolk Distillery and to enter discussions with the Salamanca Arts Centre about two others. Two councillors declared conflicts of interest in the two proposals, with Cr Anne Salt leaving the room for both, while Cr Rachel Power opted to remain to take part in the debates.

The council was quizzed on several topics relating to Willow Court during public question time at the start of Thursday night’s council meeting. With about 30 people in the public gallery, four members of the public asked questions about the proposed developments and long-term plans for the Willow Court site.

Contrasting with the misgivings from the public gallery, councillors expressed enthusiastic support for the Salamanca Arts Centre and New Norfolk Distillery propositions during discussion of those items.

In a written report, regional development officer Jess Dallas recommended that the council instruct general manager Greg Winton to negotiate acceptable terms allowing the Salamanca Arts and  Derwent Valley Arts to manage the Barracks building and Frescati House for the purposes of developing a community art space. This recommendation was moved by Cr Martyn Evans and seconded by deputy mayor Cr Jessica Cosgrove, with the inclusion of the mayor and two other councillors to participate in the negotiations.

In her report, Ms Dallas said a renewed interest in the arts as an economic and community driver in the Derwent Valley had to the founding of Derwent Valley Arts Incorporated (DVA) with the aim of working with businesses and community to encourage, promote and support arts in the region. She said the mayor and general manager had met representatives of DVA and the Salamanca Arts Centre (SAC) on May 8 to discuss adaptive re-use of the Barracks building and Frescati House. A proposal was soon received from SAC and on May 28 Ms Dallas provided a tour of the Barracks building.

Cr Anne Salt, who is secretary of the Friends
of Willow Court, removed herself from the
discussion of the Salamanca Arts Centre and
New Norfolk Distillery projects.

“SAC and DVA have entered into a memorandum of understanding that confirms their mutual goal  in the development and ongoing administration of a community arts space at Willow Court,” Ms Dallas said in her report. “Both organisations believe that they have the experience, goodwill and resources to facilitate the development and ongoing use of the Barracks and Frescati House for community arts activities.

“The proposal put forward by SAC and DVA requests that the council work collaboratively with them to transfer the building to SAC and DVA. The terms of the proposed acquisition are yet to be  discussed in detail. This report requests the council to consider the proposal and instruct the general  manager to enter into discussions that would move the proposal forward. It is proposed that any acquisition would be complete by September 2019.

“SAC and DVA are proposing to work with heritage architects and consultants to progress plans to develop the buildings that have been identified as suitable for their proposed use. Upon transfer,  SAC and DVA would commence discussions with other parties including statutory authorities and agencies, Friends of Willow Court and Friends of Frescati to develop further plans.

“It is proposed that DVA will act in a local community liaison capacity to share the joint vision of the two organisations. Both organisations will be involved in consultations with architects and  consultants. DVA and SAC plan to develop a fundraising campaign which will invite interested  organisations and individuals to provide financial and other tangible forms of support to the project.

“The ultimate aim of the proposal is to develop a program that will provide a support and space for visual and performing artists to present a range of projects.  It is anticipated that the arts program would become operational in late 2019 to 2020 and would be an ongoing proposal.”

Ms Dallas said the proposed discussions did not pose a significant risk to the council, but should the discussions result in a transfer of property, there may be  risks associated with the development of the property. “These risks would primarily be the responsibility of the proponents,” she said.

Cr Martyn Evans addressing the meeting.

In discussion, Cr Evans said the Salamanca Arts Centre proposal was a great opportunity. He welcomed its proposal to set up an expert board and he commended the group on the community consultation it had already undertaken.

Cr Cosgrove said she had to agree 100% with everything Cr Evans had said. “Look, I think with the experience and resources that Salamanca Arts Centre have behind them, I think that this is just such an exciting opportunity for our community, we can finally move forward, we can finally have that area of Willow Court reactivated after 20 years.”

Cr Rachel Power said she absolutely agreed. “So obviously I’ve consulted quite widely on this because I haven’t lived in the Valley all my life and so when I came to the Valley Willow Court was on everyone’s lips then and throughout all of the strategic planning sessions that I attended the need for the reinvigoration and for the adaptive reuse was clear.”

Cr Power said she had been lobbied by ratepayers “from all sides of the argument” and had held discussions with industry professionals. “To inform my position on this proposal I haven’t taken it lightly, I have taken it very widely and also very locally too.”

Cr Julie Triffett also “totally agreed” with the previous speakers, and described the arts as the heart and soul of the community.  After this expression of support, Cr Triffett asked for clarification of the nature of the proposed acquisition of the buildings, noting that many in the community wanted to see Willow Court remain in public hands. “So I just wanted to know, does that mean  that they know does that mean lease, buy, rent, whatever? You can take that on notice, that’s fine.” Cr Triffett also asked whether the timeframe of September this year was achieveable. “I believe so,” general manager Greg Winton replied.

Cr Luke Browning said he supported the recommendation and was looking forward to seeing the next report. “All the good comments have been taken up already,” he said.

After further discussion it was resolved to appoint councillors Triffett and Power to work with the mayor and general manager on the negotiations with the Salamanca Arts Centre.

The question of future ownership of the council-controlled section of Willow Court came up again when the proposal to lease three buildings to the New Norfolk Distillery was discussed later in the meeting. Moving the motion, Cr Evans once again included a reference to the mayor and two councillors being included in the negotiations. This motion was also seconded by Cr Cosgrove.

Cr Rachel Power addressing the meeting.

Regional development officer Jess Dallas recommended that the councillors endorse the leasing of Alonnah House (A Ward), the Occupational Therapy building and its excercise yard, and Carlton House (C Ward) to the New Norfolk Distillery.

Ms Dallas also asked councillors to note the contents of two valuation reports, and a licence and a lease between the council and the New Norfolk Distillery, none of which were available for public inspection.

“In order to allow the proponents to commence cleaning and tidying of the site in preparation for construction, council’s legal representatives have been instructed to draw up a licence allowing limited access to the site,” Ms Dallas said in her report. “If endorsed by the council, the licence will take effect after any appeals to the Development Application approved by the council have been concluded.

“The licence limits activity to the area specified in the Development Application approved by the council [on] 28 May 2019. Site cleaning and clearing activities are limited to those which are required to commence works specified in the Development Application approved by the council on 28 May 2019.

“The licence does not allow any demolition of existing structures, removal of permanent fixtures or construction, installation or building works, and is designed to facilitate a timely commencement of  construction once leasing arrangements have been finalised. The proposed licence is for a maximum  period of six months, providing an opportunity to negotiate an acceptable lease payment. It is not anticipated that the licence will run for its full term,” Ms Dallas said.

Ms Dallas said the large C Ward exercise yard was not been included in her recommendation at this time as it was subject to discussions with another party. “Should that proposal go forward, the council may choose to lease the exercise yard separately and allow an easement or similar to allow passage between the buildings,” she said in her report.

She said the proposed lease would provide certainty of tenure to the New Norfolk Distillery, and would facilitate the submission of a second development application enabling the proponents to progress their concept past the first stage. “The lease also provided a mechanism for further discussions should the council wish to sell all or part of the site,” Ms Dallas said.
Councillors Julie Triffett, left, and Jessica Cosgrove.

In discussion, Cr Triffett said the number of agenda items about the site showed Willow Court had come of age. “The buildings can be adaptively reused, it’s just brilliant. The only thing that the community that’s spoken to me about the distillery is that it wants to stay, as I said before, they want the Willow Court site to stay in public hands, so I’m just putting that out there. But I think it’s a brilliant idea, for the use of the buildings.”

Cr Luke Browning sought to amend the motion to remove the Carlton building (C Ward) from the buildings under consideration for leasing to the distillery proponents. He proposed that the building be kept available for other potential uses, particularly as the distillery did not intend to make immediate use of it. He suggested that C Ward could be kept available for the Friends of Willow Court – whose own expression of interest in the site was rejected earlier in the meeting – or any other interested parties who might come forward as the site develops.

“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of discussion and a lot of interest around this area now with things finally moving,” he said. Cr Rachel Power asked if there had been any discussions with the distillery proponent on the impact of this change, with Cr Shaw responding that he did not know, but he believed the distillery did not intend to make use of the building for several years. Cr Evans said the intention was to restore C Ward for use as a bond store and if this was not available the developers would possibly have to build another bond store off site at greater cost. Cr Cosgrove said the amendment was further complicating the plan. “I love the plan for the distillery the developer has presented to us from the beginning,” she said. The amendment failed, with only Cr Browning voting in favour of it.

Returning to the discussion of Cr Evans’ motion, councillors agreed to add Cr Browning and Cr Cosgrove to join the negotiations with the New Norfolk Distillery for the lease agreement. The motion was carried unanimously.

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