Aspiration Isn’t Enough

When Local Government Minister, Natalie Hutchins, installed administrators in place of the Geelong Council – first Yehudi Blacher, then the team of Dr Kathy Alexander, Peter Dorling and Laurinda Gardner – the to-do list was a long one. The top order of business revolved around sorting out a systemic culture of bullying, intimidation and dysfunction; forming a long-term vision for the future of the city; and developing a plan under which to realise that vision.

If it was a Trump tweet it would go something like this: Drain the swamp. Make a big beautiful plan. Get the city moving. The great people of Geelong deserve better. WE. WILL. MAKE. THIS. HAPPEN!

Easy to Tweet, not so easy to deliver… and the swamp doesn’t need draining so much as a really, really good filtration system and sustainable management plan. This would have been a tough ask to complete in the original four year period the administrators were appointed for; if there has been a dent made in the task of systemic cultural change in the 18-months they ended up with, we’d have to take that as a win.

Making a big beautiful plan however, was always going to be on the cards and, after a city wide call out for feedback, a vision document was produced: A Clever and Creative Future.

By 2047, Greater Geelong will be internationally recognised as a clever and creative city-region that is forward looking, enterprising and adaptive, and cares for its people and environment.

It’s an aspirational vision for an aspirational city and in the absence of clear strategy to make it happen (again, 18 months was never going to be long enough) there is at least a requirement for the 2018-2021 City Plan and each annual budget and action plan to be consistent with this vision document, and future Councils will need to report their progress and performance against its milestones.

At the time of it’s release, Dr Kathy Alexander, as City of Greater Geelong Administrator Chair, said, “The Councils of other cities around the world, including Melbourne, have successfully delivered long-term plans by sticking to them, orientating their budgets toward them, influencing the plans of other stakeholders, lobbying government for their support, and facilitating an environment that encouraged private investment.”

And, just as a recap, all those community forums that informed the big beautiful plan gave us (and wise Council candidates should take note) an insight into the things the local community most wanted to see for their city:

  1. Develop safe community environments
  2. Provide green spaces within and between urban areas
  3. Education that is linked to employment opportunities
  4. Support the most vulnerable members of our community
  5. Better connected local, regional and international transport options
  6. Redevelop our vacant buildings and underutilised precincts
  7. Develop better cycling and walking routes between our suburbs

The administrators were never going to finish the job in 18 months, but they have started a whole lot of things that will be handed to a new Council next month.

City Hall to City Tower?

Before they handed back the books, the administrators used their last meeting to endorse some big projects, but perhaps none bigger than the construction of a new centralised headquarters for the Council’s operations in the CBD.

The City-owned car park at 137 Mercer Street was named as the preferred site of a new civic centre and office accommodation from a list of eleven potential sites:

  1. 137 Mercer Street
  2. Civic Centre Car Park, Gheringhap Street
  3. Busport, 30 Brougham Street
  4. City Hall / Johnstone Park Plaza
  5. 24 Moorabool Street
  6. Government land around Geelong Railway Station
  7. Lt Ryrie Street car park
  8. Lt Malop Street car park
  9. 44 Ryrie Street
  10. 20 Brougham Street
  11. Target site, Thompson Road, North Geelong

City of Greater Geelong Acting Director Finance and Strategy, Peter Anderson, said the decision on the preferred site was made by assessing each against the following criteria and relative weights (by percentage):

  • Improved customer service, accessibility and civic presence (20 per cent)
  • Enhanced civic office accommodation and workplace amenity opportunity (15 per cent)
  • Financial outcomes and value for money (30 per cent)
  • Economic development, urban renewal, and revitalisation opportunities (25 per cent)
  • Site opportunities and constraints (10 per cent)

The City purchased the 137 Mercer Street site in two parts from Western Wedge Developments and the State Government in 2007–08, for a total of $3.8 million.

When asked if a departure from City Hall might allow for an expanded Geelong Gallery to move into the heritage building, Mr Anderson said, “The City might vacate its historic City Hall at a future date, depending on the final designs and staging of a new single civic centre and accommodation office.

“Prior to that, the City would discuss the historic building’s options with the Geelong Gallery, including any changes to the current plans for the Gallery.”

I can just imagine walking along the grand sweeping curve that spirals around the foyers of City Hall and taking in the splendours of a world-class touring exhibition…

Dr Alexander said the true cost of building a new civic centre building adjacent to the new WorkSafe building would be around $76 million over 20 years – factoring in an estimated $100 million build cost less operating savings – and could be further reduced by recycling existing Council sites.

There is still so much to do

The final decision on whether to build a big beautiful new tower will rest with the incoming Council, and there’s a whole lot more to be done.

Here is a brief recap of the legacy projects of this administration period:

  • Malop Street green spine – long talked about, now, finally, underway
  • Central Geelong street art and a framework to deliver consistency across public space surfaces and furniture. This is an accessibility issue and, having recently visited a few cities that have undergone major civic redevelopment but without consistency, this really can make a big difference. The difference is good and consistent design; imagine if Tony Abbott had decided to combine his suit jacket and tie with his budgie smugglers and Blundstones? It’s just too much. Hang on, I might have to go and have a lie down to recover.
  • Internal governance safeguards: a number of little birdies have suggested that quite a lot of the administrators’ time has been spent in trying to put in place safety fences against a repeat of the recent years that saw the previous council removed and a spotlight turned on internal operations.
  • A new City Hall … or perhaps, given its height and recent history of knocking off those in charge, The Tower?
  • Cultural precinct – the redevelopment of GPAC, street scaping, a rain garden in Jonstone Park, the significance of what is underway across the Little Malop Street precinct should not be underestimated
  • Commitment to Stage 1 of the Royal Geelong Yacht Club’s Geelong Waterfront Safe Harbour Project, estimated to cost $13.5 million, and another long-term project that was stalled and is now, hopefully, moving forward.
  • Endorsed a $61.6 million business case for the Northern ARC Health and Wellbeing Hub at tonight’s Council meeting. This long-awaited hospital facility in the north is more needed than ever, as our population continues to expand and public health services – particularly at University Hospital Geelong – are further strained.

In their last meeting, the administrators earmarked $20.6 million in the City’s forward budget for the Northern ARC project and have begun discussions with the State and Federal Governments about options for a shared funding model.

There is still so much to do, from tackling inequity, to developing an effective public transport system, to planning for the redevelopment of Point Henry and the Moolap foreshore and planning for a future population of half a million people.

What we are going to need are evidence-based and carefully designed strategies that will deliver a successful future for our city. The momentum is gathering speed and aspiration won’t be enough to make that vision a reality.

Feature Image Courtesy: Tract Consulting
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