By Kirra Grimes

AS the wrecking ball ripped through the old Cultural Centre in Cowes, Phillip Island, last week, Bass Coast Shire Council set about spruiking the first concept plans for a new $19 million facility to be constructed next year.

The single most expensive infrastructure project ever funded by council, the redeveloped and renamed cultural centre on Thompson Avenue promises to replace facilities which are “reaching the end of their useful life” with a state-of-the-art community hub providing the missing link between the jetty triangle at the northern end of town, and the southern retail precinct.

A slick presentation from Richmond-based architects Jackson Clements Burrows – delivered to stakeholders over the past couple of weeks and now available on council’s website – shows an ultra-modern mass timber construction, maximising natural light and versatile communal spaces, while respecting the site’s existing vegetation.

The two-storey building will house a library three times larger than what’s currently operating at the site, and linked to a local history museum, an art gallery and ancillary exhibition spaces, a 400-guest capacity function room, a visitor information centre, several community meeting rooms, and a 256 fixed seat theatre, offering a program of live performances and film screenings similar to  the Wonthaggi Union Community Arts Centre.

There’ll be casual drinking and dining options, via a box office bar and courtyard cafe, as well as space for outdoor events such as markets.

 

The top floor will be largely off limits to the public, with the majority of space reserved for offices for Bass Coast Shire Council staff, plus a home for the local genealogical society.

With the newly released designs serving as a functional outline, the architects will meet regularly with user groups including the West Gippsland Regional Library Corporation, the Phillip Island & District Historical Society, and the Artists’ Society of Phillip Island over the coming months to refine the details.

They’ve committed to engaging with Indigenous elder Dr Doseena Fergie OAM and the Bunurong Land Council to ensure the final design recognises and celebrates the Indigenous community’s connection to the land.

They’re also aiming to make it the shire’s “most sustainably constructed building by a country mile,” taking inspiration from passive house design to maximise energy efficiency and minimise the carbon footprint.

The design is expected to be finished by the end of the year, with construction to commence around Easter 2021 and be completed by spring 2022.

Council will lead consultation on a new name for the facility, hoping to come up with something a bit more “meaningful” than the ‘Cowes Cultural and Community Centre’.

Major projects manager Damian Prendergast said the wider community was also welcome to provide feedback on the concept designs, via council’s website.

 

User groups pleased

Community groups have reported positive first impressions of the design, while being quick to stress that it’s still “early days” and they’re keen see more detail before delivering their verdict.

According to the architects, all 14 user groups consulted thus far have expressed a preference for space on the ground floor, but Phillip Island and District Genealogical Society president Bob Hayes told the Sentinel-Times he was happy with the facilities they’d been allocated on level one, which would be accessible via a lift.

Phillip Island and District Historical Society president Graeme Clauscen said the amount of space allocated to the museum and “what the interior design’s going to be like” were his group’s key considerations, but so far, he had no reason to suspect the architects wouldn’t listen to and work with them.

The Artists’ Society, representing around 140 local artists, was disappointed with the lack of a dedicated studio/workshop space of their own in the concept design, with president Lois Green saying this was something they’d be pushing for in upcoming consultations, as it may not be financially viable for the group to hire out a space on an ad hoc basis.

Fees for hiring out meeting rooms have not been determined yet, with council telling the Sentinel-Times earlier in the year these would form part of a Facility Management Plan, to be developed as part of the engagement and design process.

User groups said fees had not come up for discussion in recent council led briefings.

Anne Davie, who’s been involved in several groups operating out of the centre since the early 90s, and advocating to council for upgrades since that time, was confident that after so many years of consultations, the latest design would require minimal tweaking.

“We’ve been through this so many times, I think we’ve nailed it,” she said last week.

 

But what about the pool?

In the wider community, concerns persist over council’s handling of the project and what it says about their priorities for the Island.

Local government election candidate for the Island Ward, Ron Bauer, and the Phillip Island Aquatic Centre Fund committee were among those who questioned the need to demolish and rebuild the existing cultural centre, ahead of constructing aquatics facilities Cowes had been “crying out for” for decades.

Local business operator Rob Langford of Newhaven’s Island Bay Ranch was “gobsmacked” by council’s advancement of the project in the absence of a detailed design and guaranteed funding, and in the midst of “the biggest financial crisis in our history,” saying it represents a “flagrant breach of democracy”.

He suspected the demolition had been rushed through ahead of the local government elections in October so the next council would be “saddled with” the project, no matter what the final cost ended up being.

“Find me somebody who can say this ticks the boxes for financial prudence and what ratepayers want, and that’s a rare animal. Think about it if it was your own house – would you knock it down without a final plan or budget or building contract? Of course you wouldn’t because it’s madness,” he said.

“When it goes off the rails, they’ll blame the extra costs on COVID but it’s the ratepayers who’ll be on the hook.

“[Council is] supposed to be representing the ratepayers, and what they really want is a swimming pool; they’ve been after one for years, but somebody’s hijacked the budget and driven the cultural centre.”

The Phillip Island Business Network (PIBN – formerly known as the Phillip Island Business and Tourism Association), on the other hand, said there was no reason the cultural centre build should get in the way of aquatics aspirations, and believed both projects would be of great benefit to the community.

Spokesperson Kate Adams said the development would provide renewed energy into the business community and an improved and valuable ongoing resource for community and visitors.

“It’s all the more important to move forward with the project as in this economically and socially challenging time, something new will be a positive indicator to the region.

“We do not think this should be done at the exclusion of the aquatic centre project and PIBN considers the aquatic centre as being another important and progressive development for the region,” Ms Adams said.

Council released an update on aquatics planning last month, and shared the following under an FAQ section on its website:

Full steam ahead says Council, state government

Bass MP Jordan Crugnale has thrown her support behind the cultural centre redevelopment, announcing $2.5 million in state government funds last week, in addition to a $10 million low-interest loan secured by council through the Victorian Community Infrastructure Loan Scheme earlier in the year.

The $2.5 million comes from the Growing Suburbs Fund, which was recently expanded to include six peri-urban councils.

Ms Crugnale said the state government funding commitments demonstrated “confidence that council are in a good financial position and the project can go ahead”.

She said the new cultural centre would be the “centrepiece” of Phillip Island, serving as both a community asset and visitor attraction, and making an important contribution to recovery from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic through the creation of jobs and educational opportunities, .

Council has also promoted the economic benefits of the development, with an analysis by SGS Economics and Planning forecasting the creation of 69 full-time jobs in the construction phase and 30 full-time jobs when the centre opens, and $51.8 million of value for the local economy over the life of the project.

In response to concerns about the project timeline and funding, a council spokesperson said council had “fully committed funds to ensure the timely delivery of this project”.

“The project is fully funded and has been identified in council’s long-term financial plan,” and further external funding opportunities such as grants “will be sought as they are made available,” they said.

Demolition had been scheduled well in advance of new construction in order to “detect any potential latent site issues” and “ensure that any such issues can be dealt with swiftly and in a cost-effective manner and avoid delay to the commencement of construction”.

The project is “strategically justified and has involved thorough consultation,” the spokesperson said.