By KIERAN FINNANE
The reinvention of the Alice Plaza – and its owners’ attempts to involve the Town Council in their plans – prompted the most protracted debate of last night’s council meeting.
The syndicate behind the private initiative are keen to get bankable lease arrangements in place to underpin their $50m investment.
After council rejected, back in February, their overtures to develop a new public library in the space – for reasons that the public remains completely in the dark about – negotiations shifted to developing a water park on the site.
Space for such a project was vacated after the Territory Government’s took its already drawn out plans for the Kwatja / Water Play area off the table, along with the project’s $4m budget.
However, in a complicated debate at council’s 13 April meeting – initiated by Cr Eli Melky with a heavily qualified motion, seconded by Cr Banks – council involvement in the Alice Plaza Syndicate’s water park proposal also failed to gain support.
Again, it would have involved council entering into lease negotiations for the water park site. One of the baulking points was ongoing expense to council of running the water park with no return “except good will”, as Cr Glen Auricht put it.
Cr Melky argued that the same logic applies to other community services such as the public library and the town pool, and that, over and above the provision of the service, the community interest would benefit from the syndicate’s $50m investment in the overall project.
CEO Robert Jennings urged Elected Members to wait for officers to provide an assessment (of the project in relation to council policy, with some financial review, as he clarified last night). The majority agreed, with only Cr Melky and Banks in favour of their motion.
The pair – the most proactive in raising issues for debate in the open session – were again in the minority last night (though supported by Cr Catherine Satour), when Cr Banks tabled correspondence from the syndicate’s representative John Huigen.
This related to the detail of the water park proposal, including an incentive from the syndicate of a $750 /sqm contribution to fitout of the 1000 sqm water park (previously reported in error as 10000 sqm).
Mr Huigen also raised an alternative if the preconditions of that lease were not met, which included getting the NT Government’s $4m back in play.
The syndicate’s other plans for repositioning the Plaza include development of a hotel and apartments. If the water park project fell through, Mr Huigen proposed that council would pre-purchase $3m worth of apartments.
The motion from Cr Banks (pictured) attempted to revive negotiations for the 1000 sqm lease but broadened its purpose to development of unspecified public infrastructure. The key thing would be working “in joint partnerships to maximise outcomes for the community” – in this case including $50m worth of private investment.
Without a detailed business case, again the majority were reluctant to commit, even though the motion was only calling for “in principle support”.
Crs Banks and Melky fear the impact of repeated negative responses to the syndicate’s proposals and pushed hard for Elected Members to seize the initiative, and give firm direction to officers to advance matters.
Instead the majority fell back on the vague terms of their February resolution on the matter (“explore business related opportunities”); that was all the initiative they wanted to take, thank you very much.
Cr Banks argued, on the basis of precedent, that that motion had been superseded by events. They were unpersuaded.
Their failure to support her, its inconsistency with past practice, was “disgraceful”, she said when her motion was lost.
Cr Melky also described the situation as “embarrassing and unprofessional” and suggested that CEO let the syndicate know that council will not be doing anything more about their proposals.
Meanwhile, on the matter of addressing crime and anti-social behaviour, Chief Minister Michael Gunner in another rebuff to council, has declined their request for a community safety audit of the town. He suggested rather that, while his government was getting on with the job, council could “fully participate” in the Inter-agency Tasking and Coordination Group .
Mayor Damien Ryan told council that he and the director have been attending the ITCG meetings for nine months: they are held in the Chief Minister’s office, “he mustn’t know who’s on it”.
Mr Gunner last week made a brief visit to Alice Springs, with no attempt to meet with council, despite their many requests that he do so.
Minister Nicole Manison, on the same visit, did reach out at short notice but there was no-one available to respond. The Mayor and CEO were both in Darwin for a LGANT meeting, and Deputy Mayor Jacinta Price was also out of town (as she is frequently, including last night when she attended the meeting via Zoom, pictured).
Cr Banks raised this as a matter of concern, and wanted council to formalise an arrangement that would cover such a circumstance in the future.
The debate became quite heated, with both Mayor Ryan and Deputy Mayor Price becoming indignant over any hint of a suggestion that they were not doing their job.
This was prompted by Cr Banks’s comment that she would “never leave my business without a leader in place”, that the situation “reflects on us all” when the Chief Minister meets with the Chamber of Commerce and police yet not council. It looks like “we’re missing in action”, she said.
That is “not the fault of anyone in this chamber”, responded DM Price, referring to some issues being “highly politicised”, and not appreciating that that would be “further exacerbated by some Elected Members’ suggestions”.
She said “many of us are doing what we can”, “working very hard behind scenes, addressing issues across our professional roles”. In her own case she had attended a national police symposium about youth crime held in Queensland.
Councillors nonetheless supported Cr Banks’s motion: in the case of absence of both the Mayor and Deputy Mayor, council will in future be represented by one of the chairpersons of its directorate committees, on a rotating basis.
Note: This story was published earlier as part of the report Letting the kids know we’re here
Last updated 30 April 2021, 11.45am, including additional comments from Cr Eli Mellky