New business levy to raise $600k for what?

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A proposed new levy will raise $600k to promote Warrnambool, but would it not be better spent on actual projects, like funky public art such as this in London?



[dropcap style=”color: #abccab;”] I [/dropcap]t’s a rare day when businesses ask other businesses to pay more – not less – council rates, but that is exactly what is happening in Warrnambool.

A group called Commerce Warrnambool has asked the Warrnambool City Council to introduce a special levy that would see 1300 commercial and industrial businesses each pay between $100 and up to $6000 a year for the next five years, with the first year expected to raise $600,000.

The levy, based on capital improved property value*, would rise by 5 per cent each year for the next 5 years.

And what would all this money be used for?

Well, according to the Commerce Warrnambool business plan, the first $200,000 will be used to employ a chief executive ($90,000) and associated support staff ($110,000), with the remaining $400,000 being spent on what can best be described as a huge public relations exercise.

Commerce Warrnambool, which started as a voluntary organisation in 2010 and has about 100 members, effectively wants to professionalise its role in promoting Warrnambool as “a great place to live, work and invest” (the same old mantra) and be paid to do so.

There are already at least three other marketing and public relations bodies that are funded to perform this task, including within the Warrnambool City Council, the Great South Coast Group and the Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism Board, but Commerce Warrnambool clearly feels there is room for even more.


Instead of spending more money on trying to convince people to invest in Warrnambool, why not invest in the things – like public art – that make a city appealing?


[dropcap style=”color: #abccab;”] T [/dropcap]he group will also, among other things, lobby the council (in other words, the council will collect a levy that will be partly used to lobby itself) and help to promote events such as the May Racing Carnival, Port Fairy Folk Festival, Fun for Kids and the Allansford Speedway.

From from what I have seen, these events already have significant marketing budgets and, between them, attract tens of thousands of people.

Given the record number of empty shops in downtown Warrnambool, a proposed 5.5 per cent hike in council rates, and the economic times that trouble most traders, I thought the idea of forking out money for yet another public relations and marketing project would be shot down in flames.

But no.

Commerce Warrnambool says it has contacted at least 900 businesses and received between 250-300 letters of support. This means that only a third of those surveyed like the idea, but I am stunned that it is even that high.

The council, sensing an opportunity to partially outsource another of its functions, has seized on the idea and recommended that the special levy go ahead: the councillors will vote on it Monday night (May 19).

But let’s think about this for a moment.

Do we really need a special levy to promote how wonderful Warrnambool is? Why not spend the money – if we are going to travel down this path – to improve what people actually see and experience when they come here?

Perhaps, for example, some of the $600,000 could be used to help sustain The Artery, which has given a heartbeat back to the lower end of Timor St, but is largely funded by volunteers and artists paying what little they make to hire an exhibition or studio space.

Or maybe it could be used as a building restoration fund, where property owners are given an incentive to freshen up the many tired, peeling and grubby shop facades around the city.


Telling people to work, live and invest in Warrnambool is one thing, but ensuring the city looks fresh and inviting is quite another.


[dropcap style=”color: #abccab;”] O[/dropcap]ne of the Commerce Warrnambool arguments is that other regional cities have set up a business fund, so why don’t we? It lists Ballarat, Shepparton, Swan Hill and Mildura among its examples of similar schemes, yet if we pick just one of these – Mildura – there is a cautionary tale to be heard.

The Mildura Rural City Council collects a special levy on behalf of the Mildura Development Corporation and Mildura Tourism – both of which are subsidiaries of the council – to be used for the very sort of activities outlined by Commerce Warrnambool.

Last year, however, the council swiped $100,000 from the special levy fund to use for other purposes so that it could keep its overall rates down. Ouch.

Imagine, for a moment, if instead of Commerce Warrnambool fronting up with this levy idea, it was The F Project – the local artists’ collective that started in 2008 and has around 150 members.

I am trying to picture the F Project president, instead of Commerce Warrnambool president Tony Herbert, asking the council to tax every business owner for a special public art fund that would raise $600,000 a year.

This fund, instead of being used for promotion and lobbying, would be used to commission artists from around South-West Victoria to create new works of public art (including murals, street furniture, sculptures etc) that would be installed around the the city each year.

Such a fund would buy a lot of public art and produce tangible, highly-visual results, yet there is little doubt The F Project would be laughed out of the council offices for suggesting such an “indulgence”.

Yet it is the tangible things – not just more words – that will ultimately make a difference to people wanting to visit, or move, to Warrnambool. There is no small irony in the council spruiking its Liebig St renewal plans from an empty shop in Liebig St, which is next to another empty shop, which is a few doors from another empty shop…

Money needs to be injected urgently into physical projects that will bring the city back to life – and we don’t need to pay $600,000 a year for somebody to tell us that.

[*The original version of this piece said the levy was based on 3 per cent of property value, which is incorrect. The levy will be calculated as a rate in the dollar based on CIV.]

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28 thoughts on “New business levy to raise $600k for what?”

  1. Here’s my idea……something cool like…….Hello Koala’s Sculpture Project.

    Facebook it, have a look Warrnambool City Council.

    Whales? Sea creatures? There are all sorts of things that could be done and would look awesome along the board walk and around the town.

    Geelong has the bollards, why cant we have something cool too?

  2. Thank you for giving me this information. I had no idea what Commerce Warrnambool was trying to achieve. I am not a business owner. Good luck trying to be heard

  3. Congratulations Bluestone for uncovering this information about Commerce Warrnambool. Most people would never have heard of this proposal, and if they had would have dismissed it unless they were in business. You certainly have your nose to the ground. Thank-you, keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks Claire – the local newspaper has made mention of this proposal, but given it stands to benefit from the flow-on advertising (and that its General Manager is actually part of the Commerce Warrnambool board), it has not been exactly ‘analytical’, which is why we have decided to add our voice to the discussion.

      1. Carol, when can we expect you to clear up that you now know via the Commerce Warrnambool Facebook page that Tim Lewis from The Standard is no longer on the board, or active in Commerce Warrnambool?

        1. Steve, as soon as that updated information is provided to the Warrnambool City Council and formally put into the public domain from Commerce Warrnambool. Having said that, it appears that the levy idea was developed when Mr Lewis was still a general board member, as noted in Appendix A of the council agenda, so I am not sure that it changes anything all that much.

          1. So even though it’s come directly from the group the documents it provided council were out of date, and he is no longer on the board and only considered a member because subscriptions haven’t been reissued since last year, you are still claiming he is a member of the board? Seems unfair to me.

            1. As I have just pointed out, Mr Lewis WAS a member of the board when the levy proposal was developed and this, in my view, should be declared by the local newspaper when reporting on the issue. Whether Mr Lewis is board member or active now is irrelevant. It is also unfortunate that Commerce Warrnambool has chosen to supply the council with documents that are so out of date, but this is what is contained in the agenda. Unlike some journalists, perhaps, I prefer to rely on the formal agenda documents rather than Facebook posts.

          2. But the post from Commerce Warrnambool said he hasn’t been active on the board since 2012.

            1. Steve, I have no idea what post are you talking about. As I said, I don’t rely on Facebook for facts. Again, if Commerce Warrnambool has submitted to WCC a document from Sept 2013 to support its levy claim, then surely that is what is expects the public and media to rely and report upon.

          3. Fair enough, official documentation is the way to go. But when it’s been cleared up and stated publicly, via Facebook (which is the public domain, because it can be accessed by everyone) I think you should disclose the information you know, given you are the one that has made claims. Even though, understandably, they were based on wrong information supplied.

            He may have been listed as being on the board, but as it was pointed out, he hadn’t been active the entire time Mr Herbert has been involved, since “aprox. October 2012.”

            Did you ask the question to find out which board members took part in that decision making process? Just because someone is on a list doesn’t mean they took part.

          4. Those who attended the council meeting on the 19th of May should all be aware that the plan included in the agenda was not current and did not list the current board members as that was discussed during the meeting.
            Carol, if you did get your information for this opinion piece from the wcc agenda for that meeting, then were did you find the information for your article that Tony Herbert is the president of Commerce Warrnambool? That plan in the agenda states Richard Montgomery as the President.
            You also state “The levy, based on 3 per cent of a property’s value…”, where did this come from? Check the BID brochure included in the agenda. It states, “The contribution from each property would be based on Council’s CIV value as indicated on your rates notice” it goes on to say, “For retail/commercial properties, a rate in the dollar of 0.000674 with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $6,000 per rateable property.” And “For industrial properties, a rate in the dollar of 0.000574 with a minimum of $100 and a maximum of $400 per rateable property”.
            But really, why the focus on who reported what and why? How about we all try to focus be on the actual proposal and it’s pros/cons?

            1. Thanks for your comments Donna. I am about to head off to a conference and will respond to you fully when I return on Saturday when I have had an opportunity to check the documents that I have relied up on for this piece.
              In regard to Tim Lewis, this is an entirely separate issue and not one that needs to concern Commerce Warrnambool directly. This is about transparency in reporting. When we only have one major news source in the city, and that source is reporting on an important and potentially controversial issue, I firmly believe that it needs to declare that its General Manager (and the G/M before Mr Lewis) have been members of the Commerce Warrnambool Board and remain members of the group.
              In answer to your very first question, Tony Herbert identified himself as the president of C/W in a letter to Council CEO Bruce Anson on April 10, which was also in the council agenda.
              I think we can all agree that the detail around this whole issue remains confusing and hopefully this will be addressed in the coming weeks as this plan is debated in the community.

          5. My apologies for the typos in my comment, I posted from a mobile device with auto correct. Teach me for not proof reading!

      2. Donna, I was simply pointing out that Carol is admirably asking for transparency and clear facts, but there has been an unfortunate error.

        This comment and comments that have been posted on other various Facebook posts (which one would assume have stemmed from this comment) about the issue and Tim Lewis’ involvement have now been proven unfounded.

        I would like to see it cleared up so that true information is being presented. That’s all. It’s not about who reported what, it’s about presenting the facts clearly and concisely and fixing any errors that have been made. Including this one.

        It’s obvious the misinformation came from incorrect documents from Commerce Warrnambool, it was no fault of Bluestone. But It still needs to be cleared up and clarified.

      3. You, albeit with wrong information, have accused Mr Lewis and The Standard of having a conflict of interest and bias in this contentious issue, when it’s now very clear they didn’t at all.

        What does a former general manager have to do with this? It’s very clear he had already left long before this issue came up and isn’t it entirely possible Mr Lewis didn’t know he was still considered a member of commerce Warrnambool, given no new fees had been collected and he hadn’t been to a meeting?

        It seems the people to blame here are Commerce Warrnambool and poor administration. But I still think you need to clear up and apologise for making a claim based in false information.

  4. Hi Carol, Is this levy intended to be a ‘once off’ payment or is it to be an annual ‘gift’ that the traders can look forward to? Surely where the money is going to go needs to be more carefully looked at. I seriously doubt that the Port Fairy Folk Festival needs to be propped up by the Warrnambool council.
    You are so right about how tired and forlorn the city scape is looking these days, with the amount of empty shops making the precinct look decidedly unloved.
    This could be well off the track (I’m sure that most of the actual buildings are privately owned) but perhaps some of the funds could be channeled into getting people interested in setting up a small business of some kind to infuse some vitality into certain parts of the city, where the gap-toothed effect of darkened shops is most evident. -Cheers, Lynne

  5. Just re-read your article and the answer to my initial question was right there. It’s proposed for the levy to be in place for the next 5 years, but you knew that, didn’t you? (Duh!) I was told by one of the traders in Liebig Street a few years ago, that one of the main reasons that businesses were leaving the precinct and opening in places like Gateway or moving right away, was the extremely high cost of the rents being charged by the building owners.
    Maybe this could be seriously scrutinised (probably not a new thought) by the council to not only keep the businesses we have, buy to generate new ones. I agree whloheartedly with making the town more appealing to look at, but surely the life’s blood of any town is in the diversity of its businesses. L

  6. Hi Carol,

    I am a business owner in Warrnambool and I do NOT support this proposal. (As an aside, I am a member of Commerce Warrnambool, but had not heard anything about this plan until a day or so ago when I spotted something on social media.)

    Another PR campaign is not, in my humble opinion, the answer. What would we actually be promoting?

    I think your piece here strikes to the heart of the matter – we need to invest in creating a more vibrant, dynamic city heart. The kind of place that people choose to visit. I love the idea of artworks, beautiful public spaces and interesting shops and cafes.

    Warrnambool City’s economic development unit has an important role to play in this. As a ratepayer, I don’t want to fund another layer of costly bureaucracy without first exploring what we can meaningfully do to breathe new life into the city heart.

    Really appreciate the insightful article, Carol.


  7. Thank you Carol for bringing light to an issue that we were being kept in the dark about.
    I am opposed to paying this levy for so many different reasons. Not because I simply “don’t want to pay” or I “can’t see the bigger picture” . I would be more than happy to contribute to the innovation and invigoration of our town. I am a resident and I am a business owner and I want to see our beautiful city grow and prosper, but this will never be done through duplication of services! And that is all this proposal is! A DUPLICATION OF SERVICES!
    I love the wonderful, creative ideas that have already been presented from this article about how we could better spend $600 000 to breathe life back into Warrnambool.
    Well done Carol! Together, we will all stand up and put a stop to this levy.

  8. Many thanks Carol for writing this very articulate piece and bringing the real truth to the forefront . There are number businesses in town that are financially hanging on by their fingernails this levy would serve as a death knell to them. I am so disgusted that our Council would rubber stamp such a proposal that only served to financially benefit them and Commerce Warrnambool.
    I will never agree to paying a levy that serves to pay a group to do what Council are doing.

  9. What exactly do they plan to promote?
    A tired retail precinct home to countless struggling tenants?
    Deal with the root issues first like giving visitors something to remember, something to enjoy and something to utilize before wasting money trying to get them here. We want thrm to return or stay.
    All well and good Tony Herbert suggesting businesses dig deep and psy yet another expense. … many businesses just can’t afford it.
    Let’s begin with parking meters. ..

  10. Business owners generally don’t get into business willy nilly, they have education, they have skills, and they have a desire to succeed. another group telling us how to suck eggs, and take our money for the privilege is not what is required here! Imagine $600,000 spent enhancing the city, motivating the community and empowering the community to live, love, shop and eat 3280. Spending $600,000 a year in a positive way to the community. lifting the spirits of everyone. I for one don’t want to go to another government funded workshop, held by people from out of town, when we have a wealth of knowledge of business within our own community, That understand our situations!! ALL business owners need to unite on this. And i encourage people to take note on what is happening through the council chambers, because if it wasn’t for a minority that brought this whole situation to light, then tomorrow we would be all wondering what just happened?

  11. It is perhaps worth noting that of the 900 businesses surveyed by Commerce Warrnambool, 150 locals apparently gave their signed support (which equals about 17% of 900 being in favor) and another 150 were ‘verbal’ support from 150 corporate businesses who have their head offices outside of Warrnambool. Not sure how this equates to ‘overwhelming’ support from local traders. (These figures are contained in a letter from Commerce Warrnambool president Tony Herbert to Council CEO Bruce Anson which is included in the WCC agenda).

  12. Hi Bluestone
    When you consider the amazing street art of Bristol, UK, it is obvious that it is a draw card for visitors and one that definitely drew us 18 months ago. While there is a seamy side of Bristol, even in areas where for example Banksy’s iconic art is present, the street art is non the less a compelling reason to visit. Everything else is a bonus.
    Considering Warrnambool’s amazing beaches and coastline, adding on art has to be a sure fire winner!
    A would-be Warrnambool returnee
    Marilyn (McGennan) Schroeder

  13. Councillors Gaston, Askew, Ermacora and the Mayor all believe Commerce Warrnambool is a good idea and worth the cost to local business. I was at the council meeting. Businesses will have to be very good at lobbying these councillors if this levy is to be abandoned. As a customer, I would expect a business to recover the cost through higher prices. This levy if successful will have the ability to impact on all customers.

  14. The thing I struggle to get my head around is that any ‘marketing campaign’ that’s created will inevitably be targeted towards tourists with the flavour of ‘bringing money into town’.

    This isn’t our main challenge. Sure, the tourist dollar is dried up, but in % terms, it’s nothing compared to the significant drop in local money being spent in our CBD.

    I’m not suggesting a ‘buy local’ campaign, as sometimes, such can appear sensationalised; but we need to work out to get the volume of people back to the main street, and with volume, will come spending.

    By all means create a marketing fund; but sell it to business owners on its’ merits. If it’s good enough, we will put our hard earned money to it.

  15. Thanks for a great article.As a small business owner in Warrnambool I’m appalled at the proposed levy and totally opposed to it.What right does a group of individuals have to tell other businesses how to operate and that they need a committee and a levy to fund marketing and training any business operater worth his salt should already be doing this.The Warrnambool Standard naturally supports the levy, they would be looking at the increased revenue from advertising and the council would support it as they would probably be able to reduce services presently funded by them.
    The idea of a levy on businesses seems to surface about once every decade usually pushed and promoted by a group of self serving individuals with grandiose ideas.

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