With all the excitement around the sale of the Warrnambool Fletcher Jones site, important details on the future of another prominent site in the city – Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village – have slipped by virtually unnoticed.
But despite the distractions, we do need to talk about Flagstaff Hill – or “Flaggy” as it is called by those closest to the action – because unlike the FJ site, which was privately owned, this one is costing us money.
At the moment, the Warrnambool City Council is absorbing an annual deficit of around $500,000 for the 40-year-old Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum due to falling visitor numbers that have tumbled from 80,000-plus a year to below 60,000. As I have written before, the village needs at least 80,000 visitors a year to break even.
While profit is not everything when it comes to community assets, something significant needs to be done to turn things around, or – it has now been confirmed – the site will cost the council (ie. ratepayers) almost $9 million in “losses” over the next 20 years.
It is crunch time and the crunch is that almost $15 million must be spent in the next three years on Flagstaff Hill to make any real difference to its future.
This is the conclusion reached by consultants, Coffey Sport and Leisure, who were paid $90,000 to prepare a masterplan that mapped out how to turn the site around and whose final report was recently made public.
The masterplan set out a number of scenarios – from do nothing, which would eventually see the site close – through to an all bells-and-whistles affair that would cost almost $26 million.
The report ultimately recommended a middle ground that would cost $14.8 million over three years and, potentially, turn the site into a profitable venture by doubling the number of visitors over the next 20 years.
The “middle ground” plan includes broadening the whole theme of the centre to the Great Southern Ocean (which, to some extent, has already begun); building a new, sexy interactive discovery centre that captures the stories of the Great Southern Ocean (from indigenous history, to whales, to shipwrecks); upgrading the existing sound and light shows; giving free access to the colonial village; adding another cafe and introducing food/wine events; and linking the whole site up with Lake Pertobe and Cannon Hill.
To make it happen, the council would need to chip in 25% of the total cost – ie. around $4 million – and the remainder come from state and federal funds, which, given the harsh cuts within the last Federal Budget, would be difficult.
The most important point, however, is that the report makes it clear that this plan is the very least that is required if Flagstaff Hill is to remain relevant and viable.
In other words, unless we are able to find almost $15 million in combined ratepayer and taxpayer funds, we are pretty much wasting our time and delaying the inevitable.
The council knows this, but it also knows that trying to find a spare million or two in its budget right now is almost impossible.
As a result, it recently agreed to contribute $500,000 in 2014-15, and another $500,000 the following financial year toward a $3 million upgrade of the very-dated Shipwrecked sound and laser night show, plus some other minor improvements. It hopes the state and federal governments will at least chip in another $2 million between them.
It is a Band-Aid on an oozing knee, but the council somewhat optimistically hopes that this will lift visitors to its night show by 30%.
I say optimistically, because sound and light shows were a big deal in 2002 – when Shipwrecked began – but people now have access to such technology in their own lounge rooms and will expect something pretty special.
Still, it is a start, but the conversation that still needs to be had is whether the community wishes to see up to $15 million spent on the site over the next three years.
The council sought public feedback on the masterplan last year, and while the 145 people who responded said they wanted to see Flagstaff Hill continue, it is only now being laid out in black and white as to what funds will be required to make that happen in any robust way.
Indeed, the total cost of the long-term plan is rarely mentioned at all, but instead its is framed as a “staged development”. (There was certainly no mention of $14.8 million in the council’s most recent media release on the issue.)
There is also regular reference to the council seeking private investment for the site, in the hope that – once again – a cashed up white knight will come and save the day for Warrnambool.
Unfortunately a Dean Montgomery only comes along once in a blue moon and he has grabbed hold of the Fletcher Jones site where, unlike Flagstaff Hill, the conversation became very public, very frank and, ultimately, very productive.
So, do we spend $15 million on Flagstaff Hill in the next three years to turn its fortunes around, or not?
Over to you.