Who will step up for Fletcher Jones?

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Sir Fletcher Jones: a man who helped to put Warrnambool on the map, but whose most visual legacy is being destroyed by neglect.

Analysis – Carol Altmann

In December last year, we first published an opinion piece about the future of the iconic Fletcher Jones Pleasant Hill site in Warrnambool that questions why it is being left to rot as our civic leaders stand by and, it seems, wait for a white knight to show up and make a decision about its future.

At the same time, we also questioned why the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village – having been invented as a tourist village in the 1970s – continued to be a priority in terms of concern about its future and its funding, despite its flagging popularity.

We suggested closing Flagstaff Hill and creating a combined Warrnambool Art Gallery and Museum (with a strong maritime history presence) at Pleasant Hill.

Whether people agreed with this idea or not, the piece has been our most popular story.

It had more than 1600 page views and almost 500 people shared it on Facebook. We received almost 40 comments on our site and the same amount again on our Facebook page. Almost two months after it was first published, it is still attracting attention.

Fletcher Jones matters to Warrnambool and to Warrnambool people. This message is being sent loud and clear, but I doubt that it is being heard by the people that can actually determine its future.

Will Premier and local Member Denis Napthine step up for Fletcher Jones? Has he even been asked? (Image: www.portnews.com.au)

After writing this piece, I sought out a copy of an extensive review into the Fletcher Jones site that was commissioned by the Warrnambool City Council in 2002: that is 12 years ago.

At that time, the council spent what was no doubt a considerable chunk of your money ($10,000? $15,000?) to hire an international consultancy firm Sinclair, Knight, Metz (SKM) to conduct a fulsome investigation into the Pleasant Hill site. SKM spoke to anyone and everyone. They held focus groups and they set up a steering committee made up of existing and former staff, members of the community and council.

And at the end of all this talking and consulting and investigating, SKM wrote a 100-page report with the not very gripping title of “Investigation into future economic opportunities for the Fletcher Jones site” that was presented to the Warrnambool City Council on July 8, 2003.

A copy of this report is now kept under lock and key, literally, at the Warrnambool City Library where a cheerful librarian retrieved it for me and I had the sense that I was the first person to ask for it in a very, very long time.

Will Mayor Michael Neoh or Councillors Rob Askew, Kylie Gaston, Jacinta Ermacora, Peter Sycopoulis, Peter Hulin or Brian Kelson step up? Image: ABC.

The report outlines a number of potential recommendations for the future use of the FJ site – for retail, housing, aged care – and also suggested the council, who owned the site at the time, to sell it to a willing private developer. This did not mean, however, that the council simply walk away.

Instead, SKM made a key recommendation that there be “continuous consultation and communication between the council, developers and the community” about the site’s future.

The council sold the site in 2005.

And it walked away.

It has been more than a decade since this report was commissioned and the council has done nothing concrete to ensure the preservation of this site. There has certainly been no “continuous communication” about its future.

The council’s apathy is shameful.

All of that time, all of that energy and all of that money – and for what?

Pleasant Hill is recognised by Heritage Victoria as having historical, social and aesthetic significance to the state. So perhaps the state should be contributing to its upkeep?

If so, why isn’t the council lobbying Premier Denis Napthine for this to happen? The Premier is our local MPwhat better opportunity and access could you ask for? But has anybody from the council even asked for state support? I don’t think so.

The Standard editor Steve Kelly. (Image: TheCitizen.org.au)
What about the The Standard and its editor Steve Kelly? Will the paper step up? (Image: TheCitizen.org.au)

And what is our local daily newspaper, The Warrnambool Standard, doing to take up the cause? From what I can see, nothing.

In the middle of last year, the editor of The Standard, Steve Kelly, told a forum here in Warrnambool that he believed print was “still king” in the regions and that his paper firmly set the agenda for this city and that other media outlets (the ABC, regional TV) followed.

“Do we have an absolute monopoly on setting the agenda in this district? Well, my answer to that would be ‘Yes’.  I think the radio station follows our lead. I think to a large extent [the ABC] follows our lead and I think to a large extent [WIN TV] follows our lead,” Mr Kelly is quoted as saying.

Surely it is time, then, for The Standard to take the lead – to set the agenda – on saving Fletcher Jones.

As a new, still growing forum, Bluestone Magazine can only do so much and we are thrilled to have reignited the conversation, but it takes more than conversation: it takes pressure, and it takes action.

Who, I wonder, will step up for Fletcher Jones?

If we care about the Fletcher Jones site, and I believe we do, then we need to make our leaders accountable and ensure it is preserved before all we have are memories, vintage postcards and a dusty report under lock and key to remind us of our failure.

[Since this piece was written, a grassroots supporters group has started to try and save the most important parts of this site. You can join the Save the Silver Ball and Fletcher Jones Gardens group on Facebook here. Read more about the FJ site here.]

Friends in high places: it was a different story of support when Fletcher Jones opened at Pleasant Hill in 1948.

11 thoughts on “Who will step up for Fletcher Jones?”

  1. Fair comments Carol. The place has become an eyesore. Would be great to see a cultural development at Pleasant Hill, it’s in a great position at the entrance to the city centre. Tourist info could be incorporated and moved back to the highway where it should be!

  2. I like your vision, Carol. Unfortunately there are councillors who believe they work for the CEO, rather than advocating for what the citizens need. Some of them do not answer emails! Or give you the time of day if you meet them in the street. What hope can we hope to have if basic communication between citizens, elected councillors and council staff is a one way

  3. Another great piece of thought provoking information Carol.
    How do we get our leaders to be more accountable if a pricey report done at the expense of ratepayers money doesn’t get their attention?

  4. Great article Carol,

    Here’s another angle, Fletcher Jones was a businessman who seemed to have a particularly strong sense of giving back to his community. Was he an anomaly for his time or for our business community? Or are there more like him in our business world. The recent example of the Midfield Group donating a very significant sum to Peter’s Project and Colin McKenna being heavily involved in this cause from the start suggests that the business world has a role to play in building community as well.

  5. How much is it going to cost to “save” this building?

    The place is full of asbestos and is probably structurally unsound and unsafe.

    Also what about the heritage restrictions, what impact do they have on any redevelopment potential?

    It’s all very good to try and save something historic, but sometimes we need to be realistic about it. How much will it cost to save? Will it get the use that warrants the cost of saving it?

    The article has a good idea, but doesn’t look at the finer details. Perhaps we would be better trying to save a small parts of the building, like the silver ball and the gardens and relinquishing the rest to remove the eyesore.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jarrod. Just to clarify, it has never been suggested that the entire building be saved: that is unrealistic and impractical. What (most) people want to see are the best parts of the site preserved – those that have already deemed to be of significance – and for the space to be used in a way that honours the history of the site.
      This is the challenge and yes, of course it will cost money, but a combination of state, local government, public and private funds would share the load. (Don’t forget that a proposed upgrade of Flagstaff Hill is costed at $12-15 million). If cost was always the only factor between action and inaction, why have any heritage protection at all? At the moment, the entire FJ building and silver ball is at risk of being demolished because they will be deemed “beyond repair”. The gardens are only surviving because of the work of volunteers.
      Let’s not forget that these issues were raised more than a decade ago: our point is that nothing has been done since. There is still no plan or long-term vision in place. This is shameful. Have a look at the new FB page “Save the Silver Ball and Fletcher’s Gardens” to see some shots of the interior. (And perhaps join the page!)

  6. Having been to Flagstaff Hill twice – once with an interested international visitor and also with family members who found the re-enactment of the shipwreck at Loch Ard Gorge “lame”, it showed me that tastes in these things are subjective. I found the emphasis on the ‘survival’ of the Minton peacock risible, but the show was an enjoyable experience particularly for our visitor. The trouble is, our visitor was English and these days so much of our tourism these days comes from Asia. While the shipwreck coast is an important part of our history I don’t think all the eggs should be put in this basket.

    The heritage site on Pleasant Hill created by the businessman and humanitarian, Sir Fletcher Jones, (made a knight bachelor in 1974 for services to the community and decentralisation), needs to be preserved in some modernised way as an example of Warrnambool’s progressive character. I like the description of the silver ball as Warrnambool’s largest piece of public art and the gardens have been so beautifully laid out and now cared for by volunteers that it would be a travesty to see either of these demolished!

  7. Also the only person who has not been asked to stand up is the owner of the property.

    Why is pressure not being put on him to stand up and fix the problems and come up with a solution.

    I know the council and state government have some responsibility here, but surely the majority of responsibility, and any action that needs to be taken, belongs to the owner of the buildings, not that of council.

  8. A fair comment, Jarrod, but unfortunately the owner has gone bust. The site is now under administration, so that opportunity has been lost.
    I think, as the Warrnambool Heritage Group has previously suggested, all parties needed to work together from the start to make something long-lasting happen at the site. It is too late for that particular owner now, but perhaps if a new buyer is found, then the negotiations around its future can start afresh.

  9. But the owner still owns it….the council, or state government or anyone have no right to do anything unless they buy it.

    And I don’t think anyone would want to spend millions of dollars to buy a run down old factory, full of asbestos and covered with heritage overlays that basically rule out any type of development.

    I for one know I’d be furious if my rate/tax dollars were spent on this rather than other essential services.

    It’s a sad state of affairs, but I think we are barking up the wrong tree trying to blame the council or the government. We need to be looking to the owner and to Heritage Victoria.

    1. Just to clarify, the owner no longer owns it – the bank does. In the long run, the only way the best of FJs will be saved is through a combined effort by all parties – private and public. This piece asks who will step up and agitate for that to happen.

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