Lismore art centre backlash

IT IS supposed to establish Lismore as the heart of the arts scene in the Northern Rivers, but after years of debate and the first glimpse that the Margaret Olley Art Centre may actually be built, a growing number of councillors and residents are asking if the time is right to proceed.

At Tuesday night’s council meeting, a motion to appoint the project’s designer was rushed through without debate, leading to cries mayor Jenny Dowell was ‘gagging debate’.

“What’s happened to democracy,” councillor Neil Marks yelled in disgust as a procedural rule was used to prevent discussion. The motion was passed with the mayor’s casting vote while pro-roads councillor David Yarnall was momentarily out of the room.

“Whether Jenny intended to or not, she gagged debate,” Cr Graham Meineke said later. A charge Cr Dowell vehemently denied.

After the meeting, councillors Meineke and Marks put forward a rescission motion, effectively preventing the appointment of designers until after it is debated at the next meeting in December.

Earlier that evening, waving an article from last Saturday’s Northern Star, member of Council Watch Trish Gibson demanded to know why the council was now considering striking a special levy next year for the gallery when residents were already paying the highest rates in the region.

The previous night at a community meeting in Clunes to explain why the village’s sewerage system would be put on the backburner, councillors were asked why they were spending ‘millions’ on the proposed art centre while Clunes and Lismore’s sewerage system was nearing the point of collapse.

“The feeling was once again the rural population were being treated as second class citizens with poor quality roads while all the money is being spent in Lismore and Goonellabah,” Cr Yarnall said yesterday.

The growing chorus of opponents say they are not against a gallery but given the council’s heavy indebtedness, shrinking cash flow and poor quality of roads and essential infrastructure, that the time simply isn’t right.

They want a survey to determine if residents want the gallery now, or prefer to spend their rates on other items, such as roads.

Cr Dowell flatly rejects the need for a poll, saying councillors were elected by ratepayers to make decisions, and they would make this one.

The idea of the Margaret Olley Art Gallery, to be located in a cultural precinct behind the Lismore Conservatorium, has been around for a long time. Coming with a price tag of $8 million, Cr Dowell says now is the time to act as the council could get $4 million from the Federal Government’s second stimulus package and another $1 million from Southern Cross University and other private donors.

This would leave the council with a total bill of $3 million for the gallery servicing the rapidly growing arts community and pulling in tourism dollars from the travelling quality exhibitions.

This is based on the assumption it will be completed on budget.

The council’s finance officer Reno Santin said the council would have to borrow the $3 million and find $350,000 a year to service the new debt. This is on top of between $500,000 and $700,000 needed annually to run the gallery.

It comes as councillors are already going line by line through next year’s budget to find savings, including possibly selling assets like the Nimbin Caravan Park as it struggles to overcome the effects of the financial crisis and some misjudged land speculation by a previous council.

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