The ‘mystery man’ behind $20m apartment plan

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The man behind Baybern Developments, Colin McKenna, together with Premier Denis Napthine and Warrnambool Mayor Michael Neoh, at Mr McKenna’s Midfield Meat complex earlier this year. Image: ABC South-West Victoria.


[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] B [/dropcap]luestone can reveal what should be the worst kept secret in Warrnambool: the developer behind the $20 million, nine-storey “Sandilands” apartment complex is Colin McKenna, from the Midfield Meats empire.

Mr McKenna is listed as the current director of Baybern Developments, a company set up in February this year, which plans to build what will be the biggest apartment complex of its kind for Warrnambool on a prime spot at 1A Liebig St, on the corner of Gilles and Merri streets.

The plan involves demolishing the old Sandilands hotel, and building a nine-storey complex that will include 51 mixed-use apartments, penthouses and two-floors of retail space, overlooking sweeping views of Lake Pertobe and Lady Bay.

Yet for all of the animated discussion that is being generated by the project, there has been a weird shroud of secrecy over who is behind the plans…until now.

Proposal for corner of Merri and Gilles streets October 2014
An artist’s impression of the proposed nine-storey apartment and retail complex on the corner of Gilles and Merri streets.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap] glowing editorial in the local newspaper today about the project, urged locals to embrace the “exciting and welcome new vision” and declared: “there would have to be excellent reasons for opposing a development such as this”.

And then there was this strange line: “We’re told that a consortium that includes a western Victorian developer is behind the plan, but it doesn’t really matter who is building it or developing it as long as it gets done.”

“We’re told”? “It doesn’t really matter”? “…as long as it gets done”?

The paper’s first story on the project was equally obtuse: “Baybern has been described by Tract (Consultants) as “western Victorian developers” which The Standard understands includes a Warrnambool entity.”

Surely the first question any eager newspaper wants to know is who is behind such a bold proposal, especially when that someone turns out to be one of, if not the, wealthiest local businessmen in town and an influential figure in our community.

And surely it is even more relevant to the wider public interest given Mr McKenna’s company, Midfield Meats, is behind the other most significant development in Warrnambool in the last five years with its proposed 10-storey milk processing plant in Merrivale.

That project, like the Sandilands development, has its own critics, particularly among the Merrivale community who don’t want to see even further industrialisation of their tiny patch.

So the question is not why the local newspaper didn’t find out who was behind Sandilands – of course they know – but why they are choosing not to report it?

We could only ponder, as we researched Baybern Developments ourselves.

The former Sandilands building, most recently occupied by Maddens Lawyers, which was built by local builder Ern Harris in 1940.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] T [/dropcap]he intrigue only adds to what is a long and fascinating story around the site.

Baybern Developments purchased the site earlier this year from Percy Properties, a company representing a cluster of lawyers from Madden’s law firm, including former mayor James Nicol, Brendan Pendergast, John Madden and Stan Carroll, who occupied the building for many years after the Sandilands guest house closed. (The owner of Sandilands, Katherine Plant, sold the property to her solicitor, Dan Madden, after she retired).

Despite its name, Percy Properties was never interested in property development at 1A Liebig St. Its intention, first flagged in 2006, was to sell the site free of encumbrances to somebody else who would build a modern accommodation complex.

Permits to knock the building down, however, were stymied by an independent heritage assessment which found that the 1940s, red brick, art-deco building that was built by local builder Ern Harris, had social and local historical significance.

Not to be deterred, Percy Properties fought on, and the Warrnambool City Council finally voted 4/3 in February 2009 to disregard the heritage report and allow demolition. (Those who wanted the building saved, by the way, were Crs Michael Neoh, Jacinta Ermacora and John Harris, while Crs Rob Askew, Peter Hulin, Andrew Fawcett and Jennifer Lowe voted against it.)

The Sandliands private hotel as it was in its prime. The hotel closed in the 1960s, after which the property was sold to Dan Madden.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] I [/dropcap]t is such a familiar story for Warrnambool: when it comes to development, it is either all or nothing.

There is rarely room for creative compromises, like those seen in cities around the world, where heritage (ie. irreplaceable, character-filled buildings) and modern architecture combine.

And if you seek such a compromise, you are howled down as being “anti-progress”.

Local architects were not involved in the design of the Baybern proposal, in favour of Melbourne firm ClarkeHopkinsClarke, but there are already promises of 80-100 local jobs during its construction. (As an aside, there were 200 jobs promised in the Midfield Meats milk processing and cold storage project, but it has since been confirmed the milk factory will create only around 12.)

There is no doubt 1A Liebig St is ripe for something very special, but razing yet another piece of local history and replacing it with what Warrnambool Planning and Heritage Group president Julie Eagles so perfectly described as “plonk” archictecture – architecture that can go anywhere – does not seem very special at all.

The public have until October 29 to make comment on the proposal (Planning Permit #PP2014-0162), after which it will return to the council for consideration.

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22 thoughts on “The ‘mystery man’ behind $20m apartment plan”

  1. In Such Doom And Gloom In Our Lucky Country It Is Such A Breath Of Fresh Air That Colin Sees The Potential To Forge Forward With Future Development…. Personally Respected And Admired Now And Well Before His Current Status….

  2. Again, thank you, Bluestone.
    I have to question the motivation of Mr McKenna.
    It is beginning to look like he cares more about himself and his companies than he does about what I assume is the country he was lucky enough to be born in. More especially the Western District of Victoria. He could show his appreciation by using local firms eg: architects, who may even know what sits best with our lifestyle. I do find it difficult to reconcile how a local person would not want to have the best interests of his own community as his first priority.

  3. Well done Carol and Louise. The real story here is why The Standard editorial today did not mention McKenna’s involvement in the project. They knew about it and chose not to mention it. What’s more, over the last 2 years, investigative journalism has disappeared from The Standard’s pages. They NEED their advertisers and it seems they will now not report anything that will upset their advertisers. That is not a claim – it’s just an observation. That also includes WCC who are, besides the big two national retailers, one of their prime Fairfax advertisers. But that is another story in which I hope Bluestone Magazine will later investigate.

    I was also happy to see Bluestone Magazine announce the development proposal online before The Standard chose to include it online. I remember when they used to dictate what we would read and when we would read it. That is now being challenged by their Bluestone competitor. Except The Standard are still stringing out Council Meeting news reports over 5 days in their daily newspaper rather than telling us all on a Tuesday – the day after the Council Meeting.

    1. Well said Charles! We certainly do need Bluestone and I applaud Carol and Louise’s investigative journalism. It’s a breath of fresh air, to say the least.

  4. well done to Colin McKenna for having the vision and confidence in Warrnambool to decide to invest such substantial sums into our local economy. We all benefit as a community

    1. What about his other proposal which will effect most residents in the vacinity of his milk processing plant and cold store? I still say, it is all all about Mr McKenna and not the wider community. There does not appear to be any continunity in his proposals.

  5. Personally, I like the project plans and it is something many of us have been talking about for some time. That is there needs to be more CBD living spaces and that means going up. That will provide CBD businesses with more customers and therefore more sustainable enterprises.

    However it is disappointing to hear that Colin McKenna being involved has not chosen a local architectural firm. That was a bold ‘in your face’ move. Perhaps it is just about money and practicalities and who cares about the locals? Well am sure that’s what the Merrivale community would think.

  6. Well I hope it is going to be a show stopper by using all green technology. If it can lead the way using 100% solar, green spaces , innovative beautiful interior designs, people/pet friendly etc how cool that would be……( it is isn’t it?…….surely it will?) Not just a massive energy draining building. Got to be amazing because the design of the exterior is a tad generic so I’m thinking it’s potential must be in it’s low carbon footprint.

  7. Carol, you know Peter Collins and you know he wrote the story and you also know he has 43 years experience in the industry. Why don’t you ask him why he didn’t report the name of the man instead of, yet again, trashing the newspaper and, albeit covertly, his work?

    My opinion this is the best thing that has happened in Warrnambool. Who cares who is involved, the jobs this will create can only be a good thing. Did people care who paid for the buildings down on Viaduct Road? Does anybody care who owns the properties out on Hopkins Point Road? What difference does it make who is behind this. Imagine the uproar there would be if Mr McKenna didn’t invest a cent into the local community and just made his fortune here.

    I agree the design isn’t that great, but I think with a bit of modification it could be something really special that would take in the stunning views that at the moment aren’t really taken advantage of. Much better than an old yellow brick building that just looks old.

    And Charles please tell me how many Midfield advertisements you can see in The Standard, in comparison to others, it won’t be many.

    1. Of course I do know and respect Peter. This is absolutely no reflection on him, but a larger issue.

    2. Jarrod, hmmm, that name rings a bell. You work for The Standard, right? I totally agree with Carol. It’s not an attack on an individual – it is a much larger issue. It’s about accountability and about being a transparent journalist. I worked with PC and I also know him well and respect his work. But if he wrote that article, then I would have expected him to put his name to it, whether the editor agreed or not. The fact of the matter is that while there is a prevailing feeling at The Standard that putting your name to an article published in a small-town newspaper – whether it be opinion piece, court article (although I know that’s changed) or court list – may lead to personal (and family) safety issues, we all know that has never happened. After all, I insisted on putting my name to the court stories I wrote on Geoff Clark’s rape committal hearings back in the 1990s and all was fine. He might have given me a few greasers when he saw me out and about, but really, I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
      All I can say is thank god for Bluestone – doing some truly investigative reporting and keeping the bastards honest. That’s what I trained to be a journalist for, and it’s fantastic to see someone having the balls to do it in this day and age. And good on you for giving The Standard a run for its money. The power of the people!
      Leah Heinrich

      1. Yes you’re right Leah, I work at The Standard. So obviously I’m going to stand up for the job I absolutely love when it’s questioned, and MY opinion relating to it is going to be jaded.

        That “opinion piece” was the daily editorial, which I’m sure you are aware almost never have a byline, even in the metro papers. PC’s byline was on all the news articles relating to the development and bylines are on every news story, including court stories.

        My main point, which seems to have been ignored, was why is who owns a building/development anyone else’s business? What difference does it make whether it’s owned by Joe Blogs or Mary Albert? Once again Warrnambool has the brushcutter out and is ready to try and cut down the tall poppies. Again MY OPINION.

        As I said, the design needs some work, but surely creating jobs for local tradespeople is a good thing, and attempting to revitalise the languishing CBD should be applaud, no matter who is bankrolling it.

        1. “My main point, which seems to have been ignored, was why is who owns a building/development anyone else’s business? What difference does it make whether it’s owned by Joe Blogs or Mary Albert?”
          Jarrod – if this is honestly your opinion of your job as a journalist in a regional, one-newspaper city, then I am actually more astonished than I was before I wrote this piece. What has happened to our profession that the next generation of journalists don’t see it as part of their job to put all of the facts on the table, particularly when the individual is a high-profile local figure? This troubles me on so many levels, not least that your readers only to get to hear part of the story. Are you suggesting that your paper decided not to report Mr McKenna’s name because it was considered irrelevant?

          1. Carol, that is my opinion and my opinion alone. I was not involved in the reporting of this development at all so have no idea about the decision making process.

            I am my own person and make my own decisions and opinions away from work.

            These comments are my personal opinion which I never let influence my work, (despite your insinuation)

            I’m going to end my comments here, there is obviously a differing opinion and that’s fine, I’ve had my say.

    3. Hey Jarrod ~ “that old yellow brick that just looks old” is old. Do you know why?
      Back in the day buildings were built to stay built. I am totally against the demolition of that historical piece of property.

      1. Hey Sandra, of course I know that but I find the particular building in question ugly, to me it has zero redeeming features. I’m all for retaining history, but if we retain absolutly everything just for the sake of it, don’t we become stuck in the past? Seem like we are afraid of progression? Something Warrnambool is already accused of by many

    4. Jarrod, I have been to many towns in Australia. The ones I would revisit are those that have kept the old buildings. As in the CBD where the culture of the town exists. Sorry to say, but I believe Warrnambool Town Planners have failed to preserve our identity.

  8. That’s a faily serious accusation Amanda, accusing corruption is a big deal, I hope you have the proof to back it up. And what a lovely turn of phrase you use.

    It’s also worthy to note this still hasn’t been thought the planning process, so it may not even be approved. Everyone is jumping the gun big time.

  9. * Why, oh why, may I ask, is there no name associated with this opinion piece published in The Standard? Every other opinion piece I have ever consumed over my many years as a print journalist and news junkie has the name of the author front and centre. It is an opinion, after all, and the author, one would assume, is the first thing the reader would want to know. Having myself worked as a journalist for The Standard, I know there is a prevailing theory that living in a small community means publishing your name against an opinion (or any story at all, including court and court lists) can bring about negative consequences that may put an individual’s – and their family’s – safety in jeopardy. However my opinion (LEAH HEINRICH’S opinion) has always been that if you’re going to have the guts to have your say, you have the guts to put your name against that say. I covered court when I was at The Standard and on several occasions insisted my name was published against the story, going against editorial policy. Aside from that, this “opinion piece” is not just clearly subjective, but almost reads as an advertisement for the development, and we deserve to know who wrote it.
    * This comment was written by LEAH HEINRICH. My opinions are mine alone!

  10. Well done Carol and Louise I now get the full picture – Thanks once again Bluestone for keeping our community informed

  11. I spent some time to day speaking with the good folk of Heritage Works, who gave me a lovely statement of significance regarding Sandilands Guest House…3 pages which outline why it is a building of historical significance in Warrnambool and not some tired old ugly building as Jarrod the Journalist so ignorantly claims. To my great disappointment I also learned that the demolishing order that was voted on by WCC all those years ago cannot be changed or overruled. It was my intent to lodge a VCAT paper to challenge the WCC decision, this is now not possible. The only outcome we MAY influence is what is built on this site. I am saddened that not enough care has been taken in this town to preserve our historic buildings and sites in the name of progress. Progress is still possible, it is how we intersect progress with history that we need to take time and care with. Think of examples like the Rocks in Sydney which was scheduled to be demolished and only by the grace of a few fighting souls and a tough Union was it saved.Hobart and other Tasmanian towns indeed have embraced their history whilst moving with the times. Keep up the good work Bluestone you are forging ahead and gathering momentum with your insightful reporting which can only work in the best interest of our beautiful city. (edited).

    1. Was it necessary to bring my occupation into this? As I said, this is my opinion, I am my own person and have my own independent thoughts and opinions which I don’t allow to influence my work, just as all journalists should (unless they are writing opinion or editorials)

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