Proud symbol or rusting eyesore?

A NEW Facebook group called Save the Silver Ball and Fletchers Gardens has enjoyed a quick rise to prominence, attracting 450 likes and media attention in just a few weeks.

But the group’s name and its grassroots campaign raise one question — just what are they saving it from?

Currently there are no plans to demolish any part of the historic site, which was withdrawn from sale last month ahead of attempts to rezone the property and lessen restrictions on it, thereby making it a more tempting proposition for a buyer.

But Tonia Wilcox, the creator of the Facebook group, is trying to prevent a possible future where the Silver Ball, built in 1967, is no longer a part of Warrnambool’s skyline.

“I’m jumping up and down and I’m not really sure where it gets us but if no one jumps up and down, nothing will get done,” Ms Wilcox said.

“If we don’t do anything, eventually it will have to go. If we do something now, it might be able to be saved.”

The Silver Ball, the Fletcher Jones Gardens and the former factory and outlet store are registered as significant by Heritage Victoria due to them being of “historical, social and aesthetic significance to the state of Victoria”. 

While others in the Facebook group and wider community will have their own views, Ms Wilcox said she particularly wants “to save the silver ball and stop it from falling down”.

“I think the Silver Ball is a really important part of Warrnambool’s skyline and a recognisable icon with an intrinsic connection to this place,” she explained.

“There’s no other Silver Ball. 

“It’s our largest piece of public art and I think that’s really important,” she said, adding it had a large social and historical connection for residents.

According to Warrnambool City Council, a structural assessment of the former water tower was undertaken in 2004, with “a number of works” carried out on the structure in 2010 (Heritage Victoria states the works were actually done in 2009).

“In response to the condition of the Silver Ball, (Heritage Victoria) ordered the owner to undertake urgent conservation works,” Heritage Victoria’s communications project officer Tanya Wolkenberg wrote in response to questions from The Standard.

“A range of works were completed, including the removal of the ladder rung from the leg, removal of the sphere ladder, removal of the hand rail from the top of the sphere and the undercoating of all exposed steel.”

But Ms Wilcox is fearful not enough is being done. 

“Conservation works are very different to maintenance work,” she said.

She said maintenance work was undertaken “every year when it was under Fletcher Jones’ care”.

“They used to get people inside it. They used to paint inside the ball and on the inside all the rust was mapped from year to year so they could get inside and know exactly if a spot of rust had grown.

“That’s fairly significant care that hasn’t really (happened) for 20 years.

“My real concern is it will go the way of the Criterion Hotel — that it will end up being that dangerous so they’ll have to tear it down.”

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SO whose responsibility is it to maintain the Silver Ball, the former factory and the surrounding gardens?

This is where it gets difficult, and Ms Wilcox concedes it’s hard to know who to direct the community’s concerns to.

Former owner Ian Ballis lost control of the property when his business went into receivership. He said the Fletcher Jones site now existed in a legal black hole.

“I haven’t been in charge of the site since July 2012 — that’s when my companies went into receivership,” Mr Ballis said.

“Then on November 14, I was declared bankrupt by the ANZ Bank. Sellers Muldoon Benton in Melbourne are the receivers and they were appointed by the ANZ Bank.”

Heritage Victoria told The Standard “it is now appropriate to reassess the condition of (the Silver Ball), and Heritage Victoria has recently written to the owner to request he undertake this work”.

Mr Ballis said he had not seen any such correspondence. 

“The tenants are looking after the site and I assume maintenance would fall back to (mortgagee Dd&D Securities),” Mr Ballis said.

“I don’t have the authority to do anything and haven’t for a while.”

Warrnambool-based mortgagee Dd&D Securities intends to sell the site and is in discussions with Warrnambool City Council about rezoning it to better facilitate a sale. 

Ashley King, a director of Dd&D Securities, said he had not seen any such correspondence from Heritage Victoria when he spoke to The Standard on Monday, and indicated he thought the responsibility of maintenance should fall back to Mr Ballis and the receivers.

A Heritage Victoria spokeswoman said the correspondence had also been sent to Mr Ballis, Dd&D Securities and Sellers Muldoon Benton, conceding the situation was “quite complicated”.

Neither Sellers Muldoon Benton nor Dd&D Securities were available for comment yesterday to clear up the matter of who is responsible for maintenance and conservation works at the site.

The upkeep and preservation of the Fletcher Jones property is also not the council’s problem.

Warrnambool City Council’s director of city growth Bill Millard said the council had “an advocacy role”.

“Council officers, in conjunction with Heritage Victoria officers, will also continue to undertake annual inspections of the former Fletcher Jones site, including the Silver Ball,” Mr Millard said in an emailed response to The Standard’s questions.

“Heritage Victoria is responsible for assessing all planning permits and managing enforcement related matters ... for the site. Council officers will continue to work with the current landowner, or any future landowner, and identify matters that may need addressing.

“Council has an advocacy role in ensuring the heritage values of the former Fletcher Jones Factory are incorporated and protected in any future redevelopment/re-use of the site”.

Ms Wolkenberg said Heritage Victoria had passed on to the owner of the site the “community concerns and (the owner’s) obligations under the Heritage Act”.

She also wrote that “an external inspection was undertaken in June 2013” by Heritage Victoria and city council staff. 

“This resulted in the owner being required to undertake works related to public safety,” Ms Wolkenberg wrote.

“These works were completed in 2013. It is ... in an owner’s interests to carry out normal ongoing maintenance and repair work to protect the value of their property and to avoid expensive remedial work.

“This should include general maintenance, weatherproofing and security.”

The party responsible for maintenance — whether Dd&D Securities, Sellers Muldoon Benton or Mr Ballis — has 14 days to respond to Heritage Victoria’s request for the Silver Ball to be reassessed. 

But Ms Wilcox said she and other members of the Facebook group feared Heritage Victoria was a “toothless tiger”.

A Heritage Victoria spokeswoman said their powers of enforcement started with a show cause notice, followed by an infringement notice and ending with the ability to pursue legal proceedings.

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