JOHN McCombe, Leongatha had this to say about the lack of car parking in Leongatha and a radical plan for a multi-level carpark as part of the Leongatha Railway Yards redevelopment plan and Bair Street revitalization project.

Here’s what he presented to South Gippsland Shire Councillors last Wednesday, November 21:

**

To whom it may concern:

Leongatha Railway Yard Development Project and Tying it into Supporting the case for re-opening the South Gippsland Railway Line.

  1. Preamble

My input into this matter is clearly somewhat on the late side, considering a request for funding of the Railway Yard Development (RYD) project is already in the hands of the State Government.  Nevertheless, given it is unlikely funding will eventuate any time soon, I would consider it not unreasonable for us to take a second. look at the project; if new thinking can be shown to have the prospect of producing a better outcome for all stakeholders.

Surely, we owe it to our children and great-grandchildren to do the best we can possibly do with the resources at our disposal.  I love mine very much, and for me, it’s all about keeping family close by giving them good reasons for continuing to live here, rather than forcing them to look elsewhere in order to get ahead.  We all know all too well that is what has to occur frequently as things are today – that’s the reality behind my desire to change things for the better and why I have given much thought about it before putting pen to paper.

We need to consider – and I mean seriously consider – what is the ultimate driving force behind the rationale for any one of us doing what we do. It could be we will all find we are actually pulling in the same direction without being aware that is the case.

  1. My background

A bit about me before venturing further:  Retired, 79 year old, self-employed in various businesses for 40 years, not a political activist and never have been, a ‘newbie’ to Leongatha – having arrived three and a half years ago from Cranbourne North, family in: Hallston, Dumbalk, Fish Creek, Inverloch, Wattle Bank and Korumburra, Previously lived: Millgrove, Warburton, Wesburn (all Upper Yarra Shire), Tallarook, Bonang, Tarra Valley and several Melbourne suburbs.

Since my wife and I became home owning community members of South Gippsland Shire, I have been a quiet observer, except for a published letter re the decision to ‘kick the can down the road’ when it came to progressing the Equine Centre proposed for Stony Creek.  That’s what happens when you spend half your life around horse happenings of one form or another!  Just touching momentarily on that matter, may I take the opportunity to ask Councillor’s to familiarise themselves with the guideline set out in the South Gippsland Planning Scheme (2013):

Municipal Strategic Statement – Clause 21.04, Small Towns, Objectives, Strategies, where the last dot point says: “Promote equine related land use between Stony Creek and Meeniyan”.

My early childhood years were mostly spent on a Dairy Farm (with its own bottling plant and delivery zone) situated just 7 miles from the Melbourne GPO.  There was virtually no development from Oakleigh to Dandenong, only scrubby bush to be seen from the Train.  Dandenong was basically a 1 day a week Stock Market town with a relatively small Butter Factory and not much else – in fact we travelled there for picnics.  For many years there was a big (for the time) sign at the turnoff as you left Dandenong and headed for Gippsland proclaiming “Gateway to Gippsland”.

Today, give or take a bit, the distance across Melbourne, East to West, is approximating the distance from Leongatha to the Melbourne CBD.  Sort of puts things into perspective, doesn’t it!

My point with the history lesson etc. is to drive home the changes that have engulfed Melbourne and surrounds in a single lifetime.

  1. Cause and Effect

The trigger for me pondering about the situation at all was the lack of parking spaces in Leongatha at the busier times – that’s right NOW, not five years down the track.  The same problem is pervasive right throughout the Shire.  I have personally experienced it on numerous occasions and it can seemingly happen in almost any town/hamlet within the Shire I have visited.  Whilst it’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience for me, it’s a much bigger issue for Shopkeepers/Businesses.  In Leongatha it’s a regular sight to see motorists – predominately locals I suspect – queueing for a space, or doing ‘laps’.  Then along comes the Bair Street redevelopment plan, with a minor REDUCTION in parking spaces embedded therein – thus moving the parking availability needle in the wrong direction.  Reducing parking spaces by any amount in a town stagnating through a lack of parking facilities is simply a ‘no brainer’.

Since settling here, there is one ‘Chestnut’ seen many times in the local press – venting about the proliferation of empty shops – a situation that appears to be getting worse, not better.  I see much ‘hand wringing’, yet it seems to go ‘hand in hand’ (no pun intended) with an absence of realistic solutions being put forward to change the situation.  Whilst on the vacant shops topic – Target is set to downsize by closing some 150 stores throughout Australia and whilst it’s only my instinct guiding me here, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Leongatha store is on the hit list.  If Target goes what message is that going to send to any second tier retail chain that might be considering Leongatha as part of an expansion program.

The key to growing the shopping/business precinct is clear enough – provide the parking spaces customers need and they will come.  Throughout the history of Gippsland (and mostly anywhere else) the Traders/Shopkeepers/Businesses have always followed the people.  Get the people in and they will do so again, given even only half a chance to make a dollar.

It’s vitally important to understand that almost 100% of consumers arrive at the businesses in the Shire by motor vehicle and there is no prospect of that situation altering any time soon.  All that has to be done if you want to encourage them to do business outside the Shire is to not meet their parking needs.  In effect, I interpret the availability of parking spaces as being the ‘life blood’ of the Shire.

Focusing on Leongatha (because of the RYD plan) – the question is “Where will the additional parking spaces needed now and into the future, be created if the current RYD plan proceeds?”.  As it stands, I see the current RYD plan as a great opportunity lost.  Is it too farfetched to suggest the very future of Leongatha, perhaps the Shire itself, may depend on getting the parking issue sorted?  I think not!

It’s a ‘given’ that whatever parking is provided MUST be in close proximity to what might be termed the CBD, which means there are few obvious alternatives to the RYD site.  Perhaps multi-level redevelopments at either the IGA or Woolworth’s car parks are possibilities.  Both would clearly be extremely disruptive during construction and perhaps not increase the capacity sufficiently to justify the expenditure.  In comparison, the RYD site would have virtually no disruption issues during the construction phase, and also has far better capacity potential (using McCartin Street between Bair Street and the Peart/Bruce Street’s roundabout as a yardstick (51 spaces), I estimate the proposed RYD construction may provide in excess of 200 spaces).  At this juncture, the final point I wish to make in favour of re-thinking the future use of the Railway Yards site, is that building a sizeable carpark in the Station Precinct may provide us with a useful lever in support of re-opening the Railway Line (more on that follows).  If nothing else, it can be a strong indicator to Spring Street that our community has a serious expectation the Trains will return in the fullness of time.  In the meantime, we have a very useful asset on our hands – an asset with the capability to set us on a growth trajectory course.

I don’t mind the present RYD plan per se; however, it comes across to me as being too focused on ‘feel good’ community benefits (most of which there would be little trouble locating elsewhere).  There is no serious attempt to address the one single thing that impinges on the development of Leongatha as a shopping/business hub.  That brake on progress will stay firmly on until the parking problem is resolved.  Please, as a community, let’s have a re-think and not miss this opportunity to open the closed shop doors.  I cannot stress enough that it may be a long time coming before there is a better chance to advance Leongatha and the Shire generally.

  1. Using Melbourne’s Problems to our advantage

Expanding on Melbourne’s exponential growth problem and how it may benefit our Shire, we need to understand that, all of a sudden, there is a dramatic shift in the approaches as to how to deal with it, coming from both sides of Spring Street. Sure it’s electioneering, but we do have at least a sniff that something will actually get done.  Our task is to create awareness of what we can offer Melbourne (more on that later). At the very least, if we present our case now, and the ‘Grand Plans’ being postulated for Country Rail don’t actually eventuate, we may find OUR RAILWAY scheme perfectly placed to provide a face saving cheaper ‘out’.  The need to be seen to be doing something is always paramount!

In brief, the position is on the one hand is the Andrew’s government, if re-elected, is proposing to continue with the removal of Railway/Road crossings along the Dandenong to Cranbourne line. Useful, but not overwhelming, from our point of view when linking it to the prospect of re-opening the South Gippsland line.  On the other hand, Matthew Guy’s mob, if he wins the upcoming election, is proposing a massive upgrade of the Country Rail Network.  Proposed expenditure is in the order of $15-18 billion over 10 years – according to a Press Release on 3rd October 2017.  That statement requires our full attention and is compulsory reading, given where we are at with our desire to re-open OUR RAILWAY LINE (which, by the way, does not get a mention in his proposal as it stands).  Let’s generate some awareness.  I would like to be wrong but I doubt Matthew Guy would even be aware OUR rail line is technically ‘OPEN’ – the classification arises because the railway corridor is still intact, the land is already there.  Our case for inclusion in the proposal to re-develop the Country Rail Network has to be put together and presented as soon as possible.  It’s my view, if we miss this Train, there won’t be another one come along in the next 20 years!

We could well be happy to not be part of the proposed high speed network.  There is a big chance the existing corridor may not be able to cope with that.  Personally, I would accept any speed capability we can get.  On that score, if the High Speed Network does get built, there is going to be an abundance of redundant rolling stock suddenly available.  Much of that will, no doubt have plenty of life left in it.  We utilize that on the South Gippsland Line and it’s a nice little saving for Spring Street – a “win win”!

  1. Firming my thinking

My musings about the RYD plan led me to invest some time familiarising myself with the actual site.  At this time, probably like most people who venture into the town, I knew more or less where it was, but hadn’t actually been there.  I had to get my head around the ‘scope’ etc to get a handle on whether or not what I could see evolving, in my mind’s eye, was realistic.  I concluded that it was and I was later astounded to find that only a couple of submissions (leading up to the present RYD plan) gave priority support for the area to be developed as a car park.  Further reading; and without any knowledge about the number of people who might have personally visited the site prior to making their submission; has led me to conclude the reason for the low support numbers may be grounded in the fact the car park option was virtually dismissed out-of-hand, as being ‘too costly’, in the information provided to the Community for consideration prior to the discussion meetings.  Talk about putting lead in the saddle bags!  I am not suggesting my proposal would not be costly to develop, but I reckon so will any other proper solution to fixing the lack of parking conundrum.  Nevertheless, having said that, I am going to suggest the introduction of parking fees is akin to shooting oneself in the foot.  We should all understand ‘you have to spend money to make money’.  Where the funding comes from is obviously a tough question, which, like always, will need to be worked through eventually.

Just to ‘kick start’ the funding discussion, I put forward the idea that we need to approach it on the basis that we expect the Rail Line to re-open eventually.  That unquestionably will lead to a massive population increase in the Shire.  Within all of the upside (and downside) entailed therein is embedded a significant increase in Rates Revenue.  If Grants don’t eventuate there may be scope for, let’s say, an Interest Only style loan, with the Capital repayment eventually coming from the increase in Rate Revenue.

  1. Addressing the tasks around the RYD

On inspection you will observe the RYD site is already, more or less, at a ground level that naturally well lends itself to a 2 or 3 level construction right along the full length of and close to the back of the Bair Street shops.  I am no engineer, but I see little difficulty in persisting with the pedestrian access to Bair Street via the lane between the shops, including the elevated walkway across the Railway Tracks.  I assume the original walkway was there for use by alighting Train passengers, hopefully it will be required for that purpose again.  It would benefit pedestrians, particularly the elderly, handicapped and mums with small children in tow, if the slope was taken out of the existing laneway – a small point, but making for easier access to both the elevated walkway and the proposed new carpark facility will make both more user friendly.  That little bit of elevation should make the third level achievable without having to excavate much, if at all.  There are a couple of other good reasons to opt for the third level.  Firstly, it makes it easier to provide an exit from the carpark over the Rail Lines and into Long Street.  It would ensure adequate clearance over both the Rail Lines and the Rail Trail and at the same time aligns very nicely with the existing vehicle access from Long Street (both in terms of height and positioning).  Secondly, this exit option eliminates the need for a paved surface back to McCartin Street.  A McCartin Street exit would need to be close to the present exit/entry and would therefore add to the traffic management problems that already exist in that locale.  I suggest exiting motorists would have no option but to turn left.  That in turn would  mean they must cross paths with vehicles entering the facility and also take them into the CBD, where they most probably have no wish to be (given they are exiting). The Long Street exit option also has the benefit of impinging less on the open space currently earmarked for other uses.

The existing proposal to screen the unsightly view of the back of the Bair Street shops with trees becomes redundant. In any case, it will take years before that screening would be effective (if ever), whereas the 3 level option takes care of that problem immediately on completion.  Car parks are generally pretty ugly, but I think we are getting smarter with dealing with that aspect.  It’s also worth noting here that this particular car park will be naturally well hidden, just because of where it will be positioned.  It will not be observable from virtually any direction around the town, apart from a small section of Long Street and the Railway Station itself.

  1. Construction Design

As for the design of the proposed construction, I favour keeping it as long as is possible and as narrow as is practical – there will be guidelines, no doubt – basically, this allows for retention of as much of the open area of the yards as can be achieved.  My concept is for a ‘herringbone’ (anyone around here not know what that is?) style – angle parking on either side of a single central laneway – in one end, out the other.  Entry: McCartin Street, Exit: Long Street.  A challenge for the engineers is the need for 3 side by side entry ramps and at the exit end getting the lower 2 levels to merge into the upper single exit lane with safety.  The McCartin Street end design will be made simpler by the fact the present entry drops significantly immediately upon leaving McCartin Street. Won’t be able to do ‘laps’ easily with this design, so, as is often the case today, there needs to be an electronic indication of available spaces for each level.

A lift will be necessary to get people from the lower levels to the Bair Street level as not everyone is capable of dealing with stairs.

I suggest consideration might be given to providing a 24/7 secure section (perhaps the lowest level) for exclusive use by owners and staff of shops and businesses in the CBD.  The objective of this, of course, is to free up parking spaces within the CBD they may currently be using.

  1. Marketing Leongatha

Clearly a strategy needs to be developed and without knowing anything about the current request for funding the RYD plan it’s not within my capacity to comment on that.  But, marrying the two projects creates a whole new ballgame (and like it or not, we are just the football and need to be prepared to get a kicking – and that IS from personal past experience).  Whilst I do understand the massive difference in the funding required by linking the two proposals, I still see this as a very unique opportunity to bring the Gippsland Railway re-opening into State Government focus.  We have to be able to convince them that UNBLOCKING THIS ARTERY IS THE WAY TO ENERGISE SOUTH GIPPSLAND and BEYOND and that in turn is the way to help ease the problems facing Melbourne. Understand, pushing for the existing RYD funding request alone will do nothing of the sort.

Can I respectfully suggest our approach MUST be based on what South Gippsland Shire (and the other Shires involved in the Railway re-opening push) can offer Melbourne, rather than the other way round.  Initially, because job opportunities are limited, we ought to be marketing the Shire as a ‘Dormitory’ priority for Melbourneites.  As previously mentioned, business will follow the people. Don’t be dismissive of the ‘Dormitory’ concept, it’s proven to have worked elsewhere for rural communities.  Take Seymour as an example, its roughly the same distance from the CBD as Leongatha.  Forty years ago you were flat out getting a seat on one of the extra trains added to cope with the demands of the CBD 9-5 workers.  Previously Seymour was a major rail hub, and then it wasn’t, so the town had been in a downward spiral.

Continuing the Seymour comparison, we have a natural advantage in that aside from better rainfall (think water supply), we would be bringing the population into a corridor where almost all would be within half an hour of the seaside and all of the recreational opportunities that entails – there is widespread appeal there.  Is there anyone that cannot see the opening of the railway corridor would have a beneficial effect on even the tiniest of communities within our Shire?

  1. Why open the Rail Line to Leongatha

It’s unquestionably the hub of South Gippsland.  I am not the slightest bit interested in inter-town rivalries.  This is a situation where if we can all pull together, each and every place stands to benefit.  Don’t whinge about future rate rises if you can’t get behind this concept!  We need more people!  Don’t necessarily have to like that fact – it’s just the reality! Let’s not overlook or understate the fact it’s just a nice place to live.  The appeal to existing and future Melbourne residents to be able to move to free flowing residential areas is enormous. Yeah! I know, we all like it the way it is, so get your focus back on your kids!

Leongatha has a modern but underutilized hospital, which would be improved greatly with the addition of a ‘proper’ Casualty Department.  The helipad is already there and I notice it gets plenty of use.

We have recognition as a major education centre, with in excess of 400 people already employed in that sector.  The train would improve student access and therefore encourage further expansion of the education precinct.  Again, it’s a useful tool to trend people away from Melbourne.

Then there is freight!  Right up I would be surveying all the Shire’s businesses to assess what level of interest there may be in making use of the railway system.  The big ones like Murray Goulburn, Burra Foods and VLE come immediately to mind, then there are the motor vehicle and farm machinery dealerships, stock feed, et al.

  1. Leadership

I would think it important for South Gippsland Shire to take the lead role in the approaches to Spring Street re the potential for re-opening the Railway Line.  Of course, the Shires of Baw Baw, Cardinia and Bass Coast, together with the City of Casey have to be taken on board, but if we want the line to go all the way to Leongatha (or perhaps to Koonwarra) then we have to be in control of the process.

  1. Conclusion

In conclusion, all I expect from this paper is to unleash THE POWER OF POSITIVE THINKING! LET’S GET ON WITH IT!