GLASSHOUSE SHATTERED

GLASSHOUSE SHATTERED

In New South Wales a local council has been sacked, not for corruption…but for building a theatre that cost too much.
David Spicer reports on the shattered Glasshouse of Port Macquarie.
 
I flew into Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast of New South Wales in the ABC Stateline helicopter and as we approached the former convict town some dolphins were frolicking on the surf.

The peaceful image contrasted with a community wracked by conflict.

In February the Port Macquarie Hastings Council was dismissed and an administrator appointed for four years. It might be the first Council sacked over a theatre.

When the Glasshouse was first mooted the line item in the Council papers listed a likely cost as six million dollars.
By the time the Council was sacked it had blown out to 40 million…but critics said with interest repayments the true cost would be 66 million.
All for a sleepy tourist town.
The passion raised was palpable. Everyone had a view about the Glasshouse. The critics organized a number of high profile protests.
Ian Ferguson from ACTION COUNCIL FOR TRUTH said:
“$66 million cost to ratepayers is way out of court, and they know it, and they don't want to pay it. But they are not even being asked if they are allowed to.”
The former Mayor  Rob Drew was unrepentant. “I don't see it as a bloody minded approach. I see it as a responsible decision to take our community into 30 years in the future. ”
Even as the Council’s future was hanging in the balance the Mayor proudly showed me around the building work.
He wanted to build the Port Macquarie edition of the Sydney Opera House.
The dimensions - a 620 seat theatre with fly tower, an art gallery and convention centre in one.
The Glasshouse is being built on the Port Macquarie waterfront next to the major shopping centre.
It provoked a furious debate…should a theatre be built in the centre of town where building costs are higher and parking is scarce – or out of town where costs are cheaper?
The performers want to be in the centre of town near the coffee shops.
Some local residents thought otherwise. They even had their own plans for alternative sites drawn up.
“They've got this fixation that it had to be at the big end of town. But that was inefficient to build on, given that the site is so constrained,” said Ian Ferguson.
“We're not against an arts and entertainment cultural centre. We think we need one. But we need one we can afford,” said Joan Campbell. Others supported the project. A local dance teacher welcomed it.
 “At the moment we use high school halls, auditoriums, gyms and we're having to bring all our own lighting and sound equipment … air conditioning if it's summer ... which is when we have most of our end of year concerts. Even seating. We are having to bring our own seating and it's very substandard,” she said.
The Council was determined to put the Glasshouse centre stage.
It’s one of the reasons the costs blew out.
The Theatre is being built on Port Macquarie's first street, built by convicts in the 1820s. During excavation archaeologists discovered a convict built drain in remarkably good condition. It used to carry the slops of the pioneers of Port Macquarie. Ratepayers won’t be able to use it as a sewer in future. Instead they are paying three million dollars to preserve the drain under a glass case.
In the end Local Government Inspectors concluded the Councillors.
“Ignored and misled consultants.”
“Were warned from 2002 it could not meet budget.”
“Failed to exercise prudent financial management, until costs blew out to 39 million dollars”
The NSW Local Government Minister accepted a recommendation to sack the council.
However even though the councilors have lost their jobs and the community has lost their local Council – the venue is still being built.
The Glasshouse is on track to being completed by January 2009.
The Port Macquarie citizens of the future can judge whether the Glasshouse is a monumental folly or an icon for the future.

May 2008

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