Last year we collectively celebrated the news that our beloved Bellingen Memorial Hall was not only to be restored but actually transformed into a multi-purpose Cultural Arts Hub, with improved accessibility, broader scope of use and 21st century technology. At that time grant money to the tune of $4.2 million had been secured by the collaborative efforts of Bellingen Shire Council and the Memorial Hall Committee, based on the initial concept plans for the restoration and upgrade.
Despite the excitement, all involved were aware that the original plans had some limitations, particularly in terms of the existing foyer and parking. These limitations centred on accessibility and social cohesiveness. The Committee and BSC had a major decision to make- to proceed with a plan that met the current budget albeit with limitations or create a state of the art cultural centre that would meet both current and future aspirations of the community, but that would exceed said budget.
We decided to go to the source and gather the facts. We posed the hard questions to Michelle McFadyen, Deputy General Manager BSC and Project Sponsor and Mark Oliver, Memorial Hall Committee Chair Volunteer.
MICHELLE – Take us back, how did the Memorial Hall project come about?
The idea of renovating and improving the Hall has been around a long while – however grant funding has been hard to come by.
In Mid 2018 the idea for turning the Hall into a HUB first came about. We consulted with stakeholders, community user groups and festival organisers and the idea was fully supported.
The vision was to transform the centre from a ‘Memorial Hall’ to a ‘Cultural Arts HUB’, fostering collaboration, community and creativity by upgrading the existing Hall, and building new spaces that welcomed new and diverse performances, performers, arts and workshops.
Through discussions with regular users and Festival organisers we ascertained their requirements, which informed the initial concept designs, which went on to be successful as a grant application.
MICHELLE- Since that time, a more elaborate design has been created that will exceed the budget of $4.3 million. Why?
When we submitted the grant last year, we had to provide draft concept plans for the works to be undertaken. With the time constraints of that grant process… we knew that within those first concept designs there were areas that we needed to revisit if we were successful in getting the funding. These included things like accessibility and flow, the car park design and some engineering and services works.
We were successful in securing those grants and in November last year we appointed, through a tender process, Sibling Architecture to undertake Detailed Design and progress the project to Development Application stage.
Once we started working with Sibling we took a few steps backward to go forwards. We revisited those areas that we knew needed review from the original concept, taking into account the detailed needs and concerns of user groups and the community and made efforts to address them. For example, the foyer, lack of community space for social connection, accessibility and flow issues.
The result of this was a number of iterative designs…some very innovative but all trying to balance the refresh of the hall, new facilities, anticipation of future requirements and budget, land and other constraints.
Key members of our major user groups reviewed these designs. Together we arrived at a design that countered and addressed all of the limitations in the original application – so the engineering, car park, accessibility and the like, and we had a clearer picture of the overall design required to meet all these requirements. However, as we expected, we then had to balance this with the constraints of the budget.
What we settled on was two designs – one that met the current budget and grant funding, and one that considered more the current and future aspirations of the community and the vision for the hall, and was less constrained by the budget. It was this second option that was recommended to council, even though it required a further investment of funds.
MICHELLE – Why was the over-budget design recommended as the preferred option?
The preferred option takes a longer term vision about the redevelopment – providing spaces that will not only support the community for a number of decades into the future, but provides for more financial sustainability of the Memorial Hall – with more flexible spaces for hire concurrently. Importantly, this design addresses the accessibility issues and allows equitable access for all patrons regardless of their access needs and we know that is a key value of our community. It also includes new and raised seating, more user and flexible spaces and more toilets and facilities as can be seen in the works to the main foyer area. This design provides more opportunities for arts and culture groups to use the centre, and more ease of access for our community.
When we spoke to the key users of the hall, all of them expressed concern about the front foyer. Everyone told us it wasn’t fit for purpose and was limiting. Because the foyer is the front facing part of the building and entrance to the facility, the recommended concept builds on that and allows more community social spaces and additionally, allows for accessibility for all patrons.
At an extraordinary meeting of Council on July 29, Council endorsed the recommended, more suitable design.
MARKO – In a nutshell, what does this design give to our community – why the change from the original concept to this design?
I could personally see the long term flow on benefits for our community by going for this option. As a ratepayer I am also always concerned when council takes on these extra loads but I also think that it is important for communities like ours to invest in and create our future wellbeing. A big part of Bellingen’s economic future lies in its arts and culture identity. This has become part of our “brand” if you like and the Memorial Hall is integral to that brand. I don’t think people realise just how much the hall contributes to our local economy year after year.
BMH is home to four major festivals, as well as playing host to many significant one off events too numerous to mention. We estimate the direct input into the town from one festival would be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and that the indirect flow on effect through the year from festivals alone would be in the millions of dollars. Festival and major events attract tourist visitors who utilise local accommodation, food establishments and retail businesses. This translates into turnover for local businesses and jobs for our local people.
This is a once in a generation opportunity to create a venue that will be the envy of the Mid North Coast. By doing that we will guarantee that the major festivals stay with us into the future. It will also create many more opportunities for local artists, national and international artists to stage world class events in a comfortable, 21st century state of the art venue. It will provide a complete audience experience from the moment you enter to the time you leave. That’s how much I believe in this upgrade…the benefits to Bellingen are enormous.
MARK – what involvement has the Volunteer Committee had with the Project and the work done to date? Who else was consulted?
The committee has been fully engaged with this project since the first meetings with the project team in mid 2018, where it was identified that we needed to envision the future for the hall. We were encouraged to think big. At that time we had no inkling of a grant to fulfil our dreams. So when the grant opportunity came up we were already ahead of the game in terms of the areas we had identified as requiring upgrade or addition. Users had already given us a lot of feedback on things they thought needed improvement or were limiting their ability to put on improved performances.
The first thing that happened was a full and extensive round of consultation with all hall users and I stress …all hall users. Their input was detailed and based on experience. Every piece of information was collated and absorbed into the concept plan we submitted for the grant. We were also involved in a range of engagement activities to better understand the needs and wants of our community and users.
MICHELLE – Why didn’t Council just fix up the existing hall?
The grants we received were for a range of works – some for minor restoration and maintenance works on the hall itself, and the majority of the funding for new works. The grant money couldn’t be spent just on the hall itself, it was identified for new infrastructure – to help transform the Hall to a Hub, a Cultural Centre.
She’s also an old building and over the years, requirements around things like fire safety, building code compliance and the like have changed – meaning that in this project we need to address these both in the new areas of the design and in the Hall itself. In addition, some of the funding was earmarked for the carpark and replacement of wiring and the like.
MARKO – What’s happening with the Heritage?
One of the things we never wanted to lose was the history and the heritage of the hall. We have all been working with Heritage specialists to identify those qualities of the hall that are heritage items. The hall contains some marvellous architectural features from the art deco era. It also contains pressed metal ceilings and truss frames that were unique to Bellingen and the local builders who put it together. We feel that this design is not only sympathetic to those past builders but is able to capitalise on those original features. We aim to draw people’s attention to these items even more than they do now.
MICHELLE – What’s happening with the Car Park?
As part of the grant application, $700,000 was originally earmarked for the car park behind the Memorial Hall. However, the Development Application will require around 100 car parks and currently there are only around 60 spaces. So at a cost of approximately $1.3m, we will be doing works on the car park to accommodate the 100 spaces to meet the Development Application requirements. A bonus of this of course is the extra 40 or so car parking spaces right in the centre of town, which can be used by the community.
MICHELLE – As the original $4.2m will not cover the budget for the recommended design, how will the project be funded?
The original project budget is around $4.2m with an allocation in that of $700k for the carpark.
As we’ve covered, the new design will better provide for our community into the future. This will require an additional $1.6m in funding. Recommending a loan wasn’t taken lightly. We needed to secure extra funds for the carpark of $600k, and the remainder of the loan will be used to progress with the preferred design option.
Council has a low debt ratio and low debt generally. This project will require the borrowing of funds, which we will look to do internally from our water fund, paying the loan back with interest to that fund, as opposed to the interest going to a commercial entity. It is important to note that this internal loan does not affect in any way the ability of the water fund to undertake the capital works scheduled for the life of the loan. Internal borrowing are very common in local government.
There are several opportunities for further grants so we will continue to look to these and if successful, the loan required would be reduced accordingly. If we have to borrow the full $1.6m, our repayments will be around $100k per year.
Council took a longer-term view of this project – taking into consideration what the community may need well in to the future. We’ll likely only get one shot at this so we wanted to get it as right as we could – all things considered.
MICHELLE – Where is the project up to now and it is running to time?
Well we’re in the stages now of preparing the Development Application and moving in to the Detailed Design phase. Once the Development Application is approved, we will call tenders for the construction – hopefully by the end of this year. We’d then expect to see construction commence early in 2021 and completion by the end of 2021. With that, even given the disruption caused by COVID-19, we are pretty much on track.