It’s a $9M funding mystery
A persistent narrative from those opposed to the Cultural and Civic Space is that it will never attract government funding, largely due to the inclusion of council offices.
But the results of a freedom of information search are challenging this view.
Local lawyer Heather McKinnon put in the application for information under what's now known as the Government Information Public Access (GIPA) Act.
Results show the Coffs Harbour City Council project was recommended for $9m in funding from the State Government's Regional Cultural Fund. An independent panel ranked it 16th in a list of over 150 projects.
The search also reveals a letter was sent to Deputy Premier, John Barilaro from the Minister for the Arts, Don Harwin endorsing the projects on the list.
"Please find enclosed, briefing documents which include the assessment panel report. I believe the projects selected for funding are representative of arts, screen and culture across NSW," the letter dated November, 28, 2018, stated.
"In accordance with the Regional Cultural Fund Guidelines, I am approving the enclosed list of applicants for funding and seek your endorsement."
Despite this the funding was never granted and both Coffs Harbour City Councillors and members of the public opposed to the project have returned to this apparent inability to attract funding as a reason for opposing it:
Andrew Fraser was the State Member for Coffs Harbour at the time the minister recommended the Cultural and Civic Space for funding and remains a vocal critic of the project; attending council meetings to keep an eye on debate and even organising a community meeting to rally those against the $76.5 CBD project:
Cr Sally Townley publicly revealed the results of the GIPA request at the recent Coffs Harbour City Council meeting to a round of applause from a section of the packed gallery. She has accused the retired member of political interference in the matter.
"It's extraordinary that there is still a myth in the community promoted strongly by the former National Party member for Coffs Harbour that this project is ineligible for funding," Cr Townley said.
"We know that a bid for $9m was approved by the panel of independent assessors in Round 2 of the Regional Cultural Fund. And we know that subsequently, intervention at government level resulted in the project being dropped from the list, despite the panel's recommendation."
Mr Fraser denies any political interference.
"I don't know anything about it. These applications were made directly to government and never came through me - it was game playing on their (council's) behalf as far as I'm concerned.
"They sought support from me but I never gave them a letter of support even though they kept pressing me. In the end I gave them a letter to say if there was no other feasible alternatives I would give it guarded support."
The office of Deputy Premier and Leader of The Nationals John Barilaro was also contacted for an explanation as to why the $9m was not forthcoming.
"When there is a high level of interest, as has happened with this fund, there are oversubscriptions and not all applications are successful," a spokesperson for the Deputy Premier said.
"A significant amount of the overall fund has been spent in Coffs Harbour, with over $750,000 towards arts and culture projects in round one, and in round two, over $2.6 million for the extension to the Bunker Cartoon Gallery."
The Bunker Cartoon Gallery funding was part of what was widely regarded as a cash splash in the lead up to the March State election and is also the subject of Ms McKinnon's next GIPA request to see where it was ranked in comparison to the Cultural and Civic Space.
Mr Fraser is also showing no signs of walking away from the issue.
"I'm not going to let this lie - I'm going to continue to fight against this waste of money when there are cheaper alternatives out there.
"I am no longer a State politician but I'm telling you as a citizen, that as far as I'm concerned this council's as rotten as a chop."