THERE’S no denying Toora’s Kathy Whelan, Secretary of the Friends of Agnes Falls, and the other members of her committee, including Vice President Peter Lee.
They’ve made pitch after pitch after pitch for improvements to the visitor experience at the “Highest Single Span Falls in Victoria”.
And last Wednesday, they hit the jackpot when the council, under the urging of Mayor Cr Ray Argento, himself a Toora man, agreed to fund the entire cost of a $1/2 million cantilever viewing platform over the falls.
Even at Ms Whelan’s assessment, it’s going to be a hairy experience for some, walking out along the jutting platform for a perfect view of the 69 metre falls.
But build it and they will come, according to Mrs Whelan OAM, who says visitor numbers could triple in the relatively short term, from 32,000 people last year, to close to 100,000 people in two to three years after the platform and other improvements are made.
Peter Lee’s prediction that they’ll need a four-lane highway to get people there in the future still look a bit outlandish, but you get the picture.
“We’re blown away. Obviously the council has the foresight to see it’s a huge tourism drawcard for the shire. We had 32,000 last year and the potential is there to push up visitor numbers to at least double and maybe triple in years to come.
“Tarra-Bulga has the suspension bridge which attracts a lot of people and this unique cantilever platform will give visitors a thrill. It’ll be a real highlight,” Mrs Whelan said.
There’ll be a hot time in the old town when the Friends of Agnes Falls host their annual meeting at Toora on October 26.
The process has been a long one but Mrs Whelan never flagged.
“After waiting four years for the concept plan, we presented it to council three and half years ago. To their credit, they were very interested in the design and idea.
“A grant application was made to Regional Development Victoria for a 3:1 grant but when there was a change of government, all the money going to be allocated was frozen.
“They changed guidelines and turned it into the Tourism Demand Driver Infrastructure program, Federally funded but administered by the state.
“They told us to apply again but to include paths, carpark enlarging and additional signs etc with cantilever, a total cost of $700,000.
“We did the briefing last November, ahead of the closing date, for the new council and they were unanimous that they would back it 1:1 and committed $350,000 towards it with hopefully the balance coming from grants.
“In June/July the government announced the successful applicants but unfortunately all the money went to the west of the state.
“Because the council was certain it would get up, they didn’t put it on their priority list but they looked around and managed to find the rest of the funds in the Toora channel dredging account which they don’t think will go ahead.
“If you add the $170,000 they got from that to the $350,000 already committed, it takes it to $520,000. The original quote we had was $495,000 so hopefully it can still be done for that or cheaper.”
According to a shire statement this week, the project will link in with other projects including the Port Welshpool Long Jetty and Great Southern Rail Trail to attract visitors whilst complementing Wilsons Promontory National Park.
“Visitation numbers to Agnes Falls directly aids in the support of smaller Corner Inlet communities.
“Council will receive a further report to award the contract for the design and construction of the cantilever platform. Discussions will be made with Parks Victoria to identify funding to complete the car park upgrade and associated road works.”
The Toora Dredging project has been unsuccessful in previous attempts to attract additional funding and would have significant ongoing costs had the project progressed, the council said last week.
South Gippsland Shire Mayor, Councillor Ray Argento was pleased to support the second highest visited attraction in South Gippsland, outside the Prom.
“Since Agnes Falls is Victoria’s highest single-span waterfall it is a strategic asset for attracting tourists to our region,” Cr Argento said.
“I would like to congratulate the Friends of the Agnes Falls who have been persistent in their efforts to have a cantilever platform funded. “It has been a pleasure to fund such a deserving project and we look forward to see it progress and the impact this will have on our local tourism industry,” said the Mayor.
The feeling was mutual around the table.
Cr Alyson Skinner agreed saying taking money from “a dead area” in the shire’s books and reallocating to a tourism driver was a good move.
Cr Jeremy Rich said, while visiting his “second home in Switzerland” he was well aware of the benefit of tourist trails and attractions in activating the public.
But Cr Lorraine Brunt hit the nail on the head: “We’ve never been allowed to forget Agnes Falls thanks to the volunteer commitment there… perseverance definitely pays,” she said.
Cr Andrew McEwen congratulated the group, Cr Maxine Kiel said it was the only way to go after government funding was refused and Cr Brown said Agnes Falls could now become a world-class asset.
Makes you would what you have to do to get government funding!
Not prepared to rest on their laurels, Mr Lee made an immediate pitch for the next project.
“We just need to get that picnic area right now and if you’ll get the funding, I’ll pay for four tables. That’s my offer.”
He’s also going to ramp up pressure on Parks Victoria for them to lift their game at Agnes Falls.