THE truth about the South Gippsland Shire Council’s failed experiment with its caravan parks is finally starting to unravel.
It was obvious from what transpired at last week’s council meeting that the present regime doesn’t have the stomach for the sort of council-driven restructure forced through by its predecessors.
And while the community will have to wait until the September council meeting to hear the official version on its losses, talk around the table last week paints a none-too-glowing picture of the financial jolt already incurred bringing the parks at Port Welshpool and Yanakie up to the council’s idea of compliance.
“We’ve spent millions of dollars of ratepayers’ money there in the past few years,” Cr Andrew McEwen acknowledged during debate on the issue of negotiating a new lease for the operation of the shire’s third caravan park, the Waratah Beach Caravan Park.
But he said the root of the problem for council was the “absolutely appalling lease agreed to by the shire’s commissioners” back at the time of shire amalgamations, post 1994.
Unfortunately while the councillors seem to know the extent of the losses to date, the community has not yet been advised.
The Sentinel-Times asked the council last week, in the wake of its Wednesday council meeting, when it would be releasing details about the caravan parks’ situation:
“Council will consider the future direction of the Yanakie and Long Jetty caravan parks at its September meeting. In order for the council to make an informed decision, a report detailing the finances and other matters will form part of the agenda for that meeting, which will be available from mid-September,” said a council spokesperson.
The spokesperson further acknowledged that instead of the council being responsible for bringing Waratah Beach up to compliance, i.e. pressuring annual site holders to make their vans moveable and improvements relocatable, while also introducing higher fees, the existing (or new if it comes to that) park managers would have to do that as part of their contract with the council.
So it’s lesson learned, but how does that help those who have been ejected at Port Welshpool and Yanakie at great cost to the ratepayers?
“They’ve killed it. Of the 127 annuals that used to be here, only 10 or 12 remain,” said a leaseholder at Yanakie last Sunday.
He was the only person visible at a facility that used to be humming with activity of a weekend.
“God knows what they are going to do now. There’s no one around and only one causal camper with their caravan turned up this weekend. It’s very, very quiet.”
The front of the caravan park resembles a wasteland where shady trees along the foreshore have been removed along with all the caravans.
“They say they’ll reopen the front on Melbourne Cup Weekend but we’re waiting to catch the annexes that fly off when the easterly wind starts up.”
At Waratah Beach
For their part, the friends of Waratah Beach Caravan Park, who organised a petition calling for private managers and achievable guidelines, signed by more than 1000 people, say they are happy with the direction taken by the council and feel certain their well-maintained sites can readily be made compliant with the accessibility guidelines.
“I believe that it will be fair and reasonable. We don’t have the plumbing and electrical issues they had at the other parks,” said one of the petition organisers, Sue Shergold, a long-term annual site lessee at Waratah Beach.
“The annuals know there are compliance issues coming up and feel there will be a good outcome.
“I don’t believe they will cause the devastation they did to the people at Port Welshpool and Yanakie. They can’t afford to,” she said, noting that there were no privately owned cabins or elaborate buildings around caravans at Waratah Beach.
“In most cases, it’s just a caravan and a small hard-top annex. One of them needs work but most others are well maintained.”
Mrs Shergold said fees had already been increased and she welcomed the direction council was taking offering the lease to the Harry family in the first instance.
The problem, she said, was that there has been no money invested in the parks over the years.
Elephant in the room
At its meeting last Wednesday, the council unanimously passed a motion to extend the present lease to the Harry Corporation for a further six months from December 13 to June 30, 2018, to enable them to gain the benefits of the summer season and to give the council time to negotiate a five-year lease with the Harrys.
It’s clear there has been plenty of sole-searching about previous caravan parks decisions and the impact of the slash and burn tactics at Port Welshpool and Yanakie
Cr Alyson Skinner: “I feel like this is one that really goes to the heart of a lot of community concern. A lot of information has gone on about this so I am really pleased that council is able to deliberate and debate on this and make a decision today. There are a few things to consider here. Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room which is the previous caravan park situation which was initiated in the last term of council and we have learned from our past experience on that so I feel there is nothing more to be said about that.”
Cr Skinner referred to the $72,000 paid to the council by the managers of the Waratah Beach Caravan Park and explained the way forward.
Cr Aaron Brown said the new council was now acknowledging that the council does not have the skills to manage its caravan parks directly.
“Going with a lease model is definitely the way to go. From what we have seen already, council really doesn’t have the skills or the cost situation to run their caravan parks efficiently and it has been clear from the community for quite a number of years now, and with its petition signed by 1088 signatures against it that that’s the mood in the community as well and I have to agree with that sentiment.”
He said caravan parks in South Gippsland weren’t like those in Queensland that were busy all year around, noting that the Harrys were able to continue operating the park because they had work outside the park that sustained them through the winter.
“That is what we need here,” he said, a reference to the fact that the council now has employed staff at Yanakie and Port Welshpool despite the lack of visitors.
Cr McEwen, who was a part of the previous council that put the ill-fated caravan park restructure in motion, supported the change but claimed the previous council was given a poisoned challis by the council’s commissioners.
“It’s clear council has had extreme difficulty in running the operation of the other parks, so it makes sense to pursue this approach. The problem in the beginning was the absolutely appalling lease that the commissioners agreed to.
“It was a lease that didn’t say that that the owners/operators had to do anything to upkeep the condition of the parks. It was a lease that didn’t get an economic return.
“It was a lease that at best we were getting $2 a day return per site in the caravan parks. That is was nonsense in terms of a commercial lease. The $72,000 we were getting would not have paid for the asset renewal of the roadway or the infrastructure in there.”
He said the council would now have to negotiate a lease that not only brought sites into compliance, provided for proper maintenance but also provided a commercial return.
So the council has acknowledged that this has been a bad episode. We’ve seen the personal fallout but how bad it was for the council financially is yet to be revealed.
Don’t do it to Waratah Bay, say caravan park annuals
HAVING stuffed up their caravan parks at Port Welshpool and Yanakie, it’s going to be interesting to see what the South Gippsland Shire Council does with its park at Waratah Bay.
Last week the council took the first decisive steps towards a restructure at Waratah Bay, a process that already looks very different from what took place at the other two.
That’s mainly due to the on-going role being offered to private managers, the Harry family, should they choose to accept what might yet turn out to be a mission impossible.
But one group that isn’t waiting around until the proverbial brick toilet block falls on them is the annual leaseholders at Waratah Bay.
They’ve already collected a petition signed by 1088 people, calling for the appointment of private lessee/managers, tick; fairer guidelines than the Draconian ones operating at Yanakie and Port Welshpool, and greater levels of transparency and community consultation.
And three of the lead petitioners; Lynn Yoemans, Judy Davine and Sue Shergold didn’t pull any punches when they arrived to back up their petition at a briefing session prior to last Wednesday’s council meeting.
“We’ve seen what happened at Yanakie and Port Welshpool and we’re concerned it might happen to us as well,” Mrs Shergold said.
She went on to say that the community at large was very concerned that the ratepayers’ money, and also millions in fees paid into a caravan park reserve over decades by leaseholders and visitors, had been used “in a very reckless manner” by the shire, claiming amounts of $1.9m at Yanakie and $1m at Port Welshpool had been spent to date.
These claims will be addressed when a promised report by the council on the caravan parks finally sees the light of day in the next few months.
Why it is taking so long to compile is anyone’s guess.
Mrs Davine claimed the Waratah Bay Caravan Park was already compliant with the equity of access guidelines, saying there was a healthy turnover of annual leaseholders and a good balance between long-term sites (50%), cabins (5%) and campsites (45%).
“Activities including picnic races and cricket matches allow opportunities for socialising and many long-term friendships have been forged over the years with close bonds created between children. This provides a level of stability and safety in the park and casual campers remark on this sense of safety and security which allows them to let their children enjoy a freedom seldom experienced elsewhere. It is the annuals who are the core of this caring community and many casual campers at a recent public meeting said they would not continue to bring their children and camp here if the annuals left,” Mrs Davine said.
She went on to say that the annuals had also introduced many visitors including international visitors to the park and they don’t want to see what has happened to Yanakie and the Long Jetty caravan parks happen at Waratah Bay.
“In the peak times of January in both 2016 and 2017, we visited both parks and found very few occupants or campers – they were ghost towns with no children playing on the playgrounds. We have photographs providing evidence of the lack of campers utilising the parks,” she said.
The funds spent on improvements, she said, had not resulted in increased patronage.
Lynn Yeomans said the exodus of 100s of vans and their owners had had an adverse impact on local business.
She went on to say that the community had a right to be informed about the money spent by the shire at the other parks and what it had achieved.
“The administration has hidden the costs from the council,” she said, also noting that the management guidelines were just that “guidelines” but not enshrined in legislation.
Mrs Shergold said the private model of management, with a percentage of the park’s sites leased out to annuals was best on a lot of levels; providing financial stability through the low and high season and managers who were available as the need arose to provide access afterhours, onsite maintenance as required and screening of undesirables if needed.
She said the group was now pleased with the way the shire council was going, extending the current lease through to June 30, 2018 and offering the option to the existing operators to extend.
And she said she wasn’t concerned that the council had voted to “transition the park into compliance with the best practice management guidelines” because she felt the annuals’ sites were generally compliant.
“I don’ believe it will devastate Waratah like it has Yanakie and Port Welshpool but this is just the beginning.
“We’ll be taking a hand in this all the way and if necessary taking up another petition.
“It’s the beginning of a journey for us but it’s different at Waratah Bay because there’s still a management lease in place, plus we have the benefit, sadly, of hindsight with what happened at the other two.
But passing a motion in favour of retaining the existing management at Waratah Bay is not the end of it.
As noted by Cr Lorraine Brunt, Waratah Bay will have to achieve compliance over time with the guidelines that saw dozens of annuals uprooted at the other two parks, and the council is also looking at netting far more than the $72,000 they annually receive from the Harry family.
“Where will the money come from to upgrade the park,” she said, $72,000 is not a lot of money.”
Cr Brunt also asked if the annual leaseholders’ vans were all moveable, as set out in the guidelines.
“The parks are for everyone and that’s what we have to achieve,” she said.
Mrs Shergold said one of the main problems had been created by the council itself.
“We have been at Waratah Bay Caravan Park for 30 years and I can’t see any money, apart from the toilet block 10 to 15 years ago, being spent on the park from that reserve fund. There used to be $1.2 million in that reserve (from fees collected).
“It’s unfair to say they are rundown because they have been allowed to run down,” she said.