COMMUNITY leaders and volunteers are angrily criticising Bass Coast Shire Council’s sudden announcement about the pending closure of Wonthaggi’s Visitor Information Centre (VIC).
The council announced last Thursday a decision about the information outlet – which has been housed in the grandiose Wonthaggi Centennial Centre for just over four years – had been made following a recent service review.
Council CEO Paul Buckley explained that low visitor numbers and the high cost of running the Wonthaggi centre in comparison to the three other centres in the shire (Newhaven, Cowes and Inverloch), were major factors in the decision.
The Wonthaggi VIC will close at the end of June.
“Of the 233,000 people who visit the four centres annually, only just over 10 per cent of that total visits the Wonthaggi one,” Mr Buckley said, adding that despite delivering a quality service, the centre is “really inefficient”.
According to council, the cost per visitor to the shire’s three other centres is $4.84 per visitor, while at Wonthaggi it is almost double at $9.22.
The closure of the Wonthaggi service, along with other changes across the VIC network, is expected to save ratepayers over $3m over the next decade.
Long-time information centre volunteer Max Williams said he was “absolutely devastated” when he heard the news last Thursday.
Max was part of the original committee that began the town’s visitor information service back in the early 1970s.
He firmly believes that council should look elsewhere to save money.
“I’d like to see the State Government take it over,” he said.
“That way it could be run by volunteers and we wouldn’t need to pay any council staff to oversee us.”
As a result of council’s decision, one staff member will be made redundant.
Rather than opt for community consultation, or present a report to councillors for debate over a decision, the matter was discussed behind closed doors after the conclusion Wednesday’s council meeting.
‘Not happy, Jan’
Wonthaggi Business Association’s Ross Langlois said he was bowled over the by the suddenness of the announcement.
“We’re not happy, Jan,” he said on Monday.
“None of us knew this was going to happen and we don’t agree with it one bit.
“We thought it was rolling along just fine.
“We will be meeting with the shire to see if there’s anything that can be done to save it.”
Ross believes the information centre’s closure would have “a massive impact” on local businesses, and the State Coal Mine would feel it most.
Inverloch Tourism Association president, Don Brusamarello, said that if Wonthaggi is aspiring to be a regional centre, “one would hope they’d be able to manage a visitor service delivery model there”.
“I think we need some kind of visitor information service there, not just for Wonthaggi and the State Coal Mine, but also for the surrounding area,” Mr Brusamarello said.
Well-known council critic Alan Brown also weighed in on the matter.
“I fully understand the need to make savings and so does the wider community but this decision of council cannot be supported,” he said.
“It will have a major impact on local businesses, particularly those involved in tourism.
“(The service) can be run on a shoestring at minimal cost to council and the bulk of the money to build this wonderful facility was a government grant.
“Also, I find it close to unbelievable that at the same council meetings they made this decision behind closed doors, councillors agreed to allocate $50,000 to investigate a possible construction of an additional playground.
“That seems to be what this council is about – spending enormous amounts of money investigating things without actually achieving anything.”
Former Mayor and long-term Hovell ward councillor John Duscher also joined the chorus of voices speaking against the decision.
“The community should be outraged, not only with the decision but with the way the council has gone about it!” he said.
“Consultation should occur before any decision is made, not after the event.
“It smacks of complete disrespect to those who worked so hard to achieve the project for the town and the many volunteers who have worked there continuously to run the service.
“The project was initiated by the Rotary Club of Wonthaggi, was funded through grants from the Federal Government Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program, State Government, Bass Coast Shire Council, Rotary and the community to mark Wonthaggi’s 100th birthday.
“Now with 20,000 visitors-plus to the centre annually, the future of the information service and centre is in question.
“That equates to around 60 people a day!
“Council has copped plenty of criticism about some of its decisions and the way these decisions have been reached, and this unfortunately yet another one.
“Wonthaggi has been short changed with this disgraceful, ill-informed decision and it needs to be overturned immediately.”
The big question
And “the big question” now, council CEO Paul Buckley surmised, was what council is going to do with the Centennial Centre – a $1.5m asset which was only built five years ago.
“We’ll be asking the community what happens to the building,” he explained.
“Over the next four months we will explore a range of options for the use of that facility.
“And that will include options around community use or potential commercial use.
“There will be a comprehensive consultation process involved.
The main thing, he concluded, is that the building doesn’t sit unutilised once the visitor information service shuts for good on June 30.
“We don’t want to see it sitting there empty and there are already lots of ideas out there in the community about how it might be used in the future,” he said.
Cr Neil Rankine indicated the closure of the Wonthaggi centre won’t come as much of a shock to those who’ve noticed little activity around the building since it was unveiled in late 2011
“Whenever I’ve walked by, there has been absolutely no one in the car park,” he said.
“The idea behind the large car park was that people with caravans would have somewhere to park.
“I think I’ve seen three caravans there the last three years.
“We’re going to have to cut services and this is one of them.”
Whatever happens to the building, Cr Rankine says the site will play a key role in the formulation of a Wonthaggi Activity Centre Plan (WACP), which he hopes will get budget support and be developed during the 2016/17 financial year.
“It’s obviously a fantastic building and we need to make good use of it,” he said.
“There are all sorts of possibilities.
“I think it’s possible we’ll end up with a bus interchange there.
“We don’t know what we’ll do, but we’ll make sure it is good use of that space.
“It could be a future library or anything, really.”
The closing of Wonthaggi’s centre won’t be the only changes to the council’s VIC network.
Others identified include the implementation of ‘shared service’ customer delivery models for Cowes and Inverloch VICs.
Mr Buckley said this this will see Cowes integrate Customer Service and Visitor Services.
Customer Service at Inverloch, which is delivered through the Inverloch Library, will be merged with Hub operations and Visitor Services.
“Inverloch and Cowes will continue to operate and offer visitor services, but with a closer operational tie to existing customer service operations,” Mr Buckley said.
“This does not reduce the service in either VIC or customer service, but just allow them to operate more efficiently.”
Phillip Island Visitor Information Centre in Newhaven will continue to operate as is, with additional investment in technology and staffing to assure its status as the ‘flagship’ of the network.
The Service Review Program is designed to find operational efficiencies and innovations to deliver services to the community in accordance with the Council Plan 2013-2017 and Long Term Financial Plan.
Mr Buckley also emphasised that the service reviews were not about performance.
“In general, service reviews are designed to determine the level of service we will provide and the most appropriate strategic business model to provide that service.”
OPINIONS flowed in thick and fast on the Sentinel-Times’ Facebook page when news of the Visitor Information Centre’s impending closure first broke last Thursday.
The Sentinel-Times asked its Facebook followers what should be done with the building.
Here are a few of the responses:
Marisa Gibbins – Keep the info centre. I doubt it’s going to save taxpayers anything at all. If anything the town will suffer.
Heitor Hilberto – Open it up as a café. The location, parking spaces and parks would surely attract attention and revenue.
Naureen Wildes Keiler – Keep it as a Visitor Information Centre….cut some council staff to fund it.
Rohan Bowers – Sell it and give us a pool on the island finally!
Kelly Hamilton – Something for the youth.
Iznaya Kennedy – Youth drop in centre.
Maddie Barker – An art gallery/information centre.