To close or not to close?
City councillors are taking the bull by the horns when it comes to the future of Warrnambool's saleyards.
They controversially last week voted to not award a $5.66m tender for critical works to the ageing yards, instead opting to embark on community consultation about the facility's future.
This week mayor Vicki Jellie announced the consultation would initially consist of a survey and after results were known, sessions with key stakeholders would be held with a decision likely to be made in November.
Should the consultation have happened before last week's vote?
The saleyards and its users, farmers, agents and associated businesses, are mobilising, arguing the 52-year-old facility needs be upgraded and kept open for economic and social reasons.
Historically the yards brought people into the city on market day, stock was bought and sold, grocery and other shopping done and supplies, equipment purchased. Documents released at last week's meeting said the facility injected about $35 million annually into the city's economy. A 2008 report estimated $13.7m turnover would be lost from the city if the yards closed, with the biggest impact on businesses in the Caramut Road area.
But the yards are not what they were. Almost two years ago a concrete walkway collapsed, sparking safety investigations. In February a cow escaped, sparking more investigations. In May the council's chief executive officer wrote to stock agents asking them to sign up to five-year commitments at the yards in return for future developments to improve the facility.
A draft of the city's strategic council plan released with the draft budget soon after said the council would upgrade the saleyards and earmarked considerable funds.
But then when the plan and budget were adopted in June, the council's commitment was less concrete despite calling for tenders.
So what changed?
The extent of works needed finally emerged last week when the council publicly released hundreds of pages of documents. The Standard weeks earlier had sought the documents under Freedom of Information. They paint a grim picture for the yards with sections failing most Australian standards. They also revealed the council had legal responsibilities associated with safety.
Farmers and agents convinced the council eight years ago to keep the yards open despite the threat of private competition.
Emotion won't be enough to save the yards this time. Councillors are acutely aware of the economic and safety issues at play. If they spend millions upgrading the yards, they may not get a return on the investment for 20 years. But if they close the yards, rehabilitate the site and sell the land, the council would have millions in the kitty for other projects, plus rates from whatever business or residential properties are developed there.
Councillors are being reminded their votes will have legacy ramifications. They will be damned if they do and damned if they don't. This truly has to boil down to what's in the city's and ratepayers' best interests.
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