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Pool politics at Mernda Regional Sports and Aquatic Facility

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By Colin MacGillivray

FORMER City of Whittlesea Mayor Lawrie Cox is afraid the $180 million Mernda Regional Sports and Aquatic Facility will become a white elephant, expressing doubts about council’s ability to fund its construction and ongoing maintenance.

Mr Cox, who was a member of council until its dismissal by the State Government in March 2020, said a business case for the Plenty Road facility approved by administrators at last month’s council meeting was ‘not sound’ because it relied on $80 million of external funding.

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He said the project would cripple council’s ability to deliver sports infrastructure in other parts of the municipality.

“Constructing a pool is not simply a click of the fingers, it’s a fairly expensive exercise,” he said.

“What the previous council was concerned about was that the cost of one facility was going to asset strip all other areas. The cost then was talked about as $113 million, and it’s now come out at $180 million.

“You can’t build other facilities if you’re pouring all the money into that.”

The business case, prepared by Deloitte Australia, recommends the project be delivered in three stages, with stage one – site establishment and detailed design – already underway.

Stage two includes the construction of six indoor sports courts and eight outdoor netball courts, along with detailed design for aquatic and leisure components, and is set to begin in 2024-25.

Stage three involves building a 50-metre pool and several other fitness and leisure pools, along with a gym, a spa and sauna, and consulting suites. Construction on stage three is slated to begin in 2027-28.

Mr Cox expressed doubts the state and federal governments would come to council’s aid with funding pledges for the facility in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, there has been some election commitments to recreation centres at both a state and federal level in the lead-up to respective elections.

But Mr Cox said framing the facility as a regional centre was ‘rubbish’ and council should prioritise other sports facilities ahead of swimming.

“When I was a councillor we had 5000 people looking for court space for netball and basketball. You don’t have that sort of demand for swimming, and I’m saying that as a past Swimming Victoria president and past Swimming Australia board member,” he said.

“I don’t oppose courts being developed there, because we do need these sorts of facilities, but we also need them in other parts of our municipality.

“The Epping North-Wollert area is developing far more rapidly in population size than Mernda. People in that area are starting to say ‘where are the community sports facilities up here?’ There are none [planned] for the next 10 years.

“We also need renewal on facilities in areas further south like Lalor, Thomastown and Bundoora.”

Mr Cox said the long-term maintenance of the facility would drain council resources.

“I’d dearly love a pool, don’t get me wrong, but … the ongoing costs are horrendous. I was involved in the construction of [the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre], and the ongoing costs there are huge,” he said.

“We didn’t even use the pool that [former Premier Jeff] Kennett built using money from the casino. There was an outdoor pool that made a great duck heater but wasn’t used for much else.”

City of Whittlesea chair administrator Lydia Wilson said staging the project would spread the cost over several years, ensuring council could continue to deliver other infrastructure across the city.

“We are a growing municipality, and we need to ensure that we can meet the needs of communities across our established, new and rural areas – both now and in years to come,” she said.

“To deliver this project we need to secure the support of the federal and state governments and we are strongly advocating to both levels of government to contribute significant funding to deliver this much-needed facility.”

Ms Wilson said council had endorsed $48 million for the delivery of stage two, contingent on securing additional external funding of $40 million.

Administrator Peita Duncan said the project would not compromise council’s ability to deliver infrastructure.

“Council is currently developing its Long-Term Community Infrastructure Strategy to ensure we have a pipeline of community infrastructure projects ready to deliver over the next 20 years,” she said.

“The strategy will be underpinned by several principles, including equity of infrastructure across council’s established, growth and rural areas.”

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  1. Sure the facility is needed, but I don’t want to be subsidizing the construction of a facility I’m never going to use. Rate payers in Mernda, Doreen, Whittlesea and Wollert should be the ones footing the subsidy for the construction, not raterpayers in Bundoora, Lalor or Thomastown. City of Whittlesea is too big and needs to be broken up. Its focus is too fragmented, and too many inner residents are bearing the brunt of insufficient developer contributions, in new estates in the northern fringes.

  2. The facility is needed. It should just be built. The closest beach is 2 hours away! Lawrie should stop playing politics and care about what the community needs.

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