31 January 2023

A bad deal or buyer's regret? Wagga Council reiterates the call for answers on the 'Ambo'

| Chris Roe
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The Ambo

Wagga City Council is concerned it got a raw deal on the ”Ambo”. Photo: Chris Roe.

Wagga City Council wants a refund, or at the very least, an explanation as to why it didn’t get a better deal on the old Wagga Ambulance Station from the NSW Government.

In the first council meeting for 2023, Councillor Dan Hayes submitted a question on notice, following up on whether Mayor Dallas Tout had received a reply to an email sent to the Premier.

“This was about being curious, not judgmental, about finding out why Wagga was told there was a policy in place that required us to pay quite an extensive amount despite a long history of other buildings being given to councils for $1,” Cr Hayes explained.

Cr Tout confirmed that he had received a reply from Premier Dominic Perrottet on 10 August (2022) referring the matter to Health Minister Brad Hazzard, whose department managed the property “in accordance with Treasury guidelines”.

He also confirmed that a second email had been sent on 29 August but no further reply had been forthcoming.

READ ALSO The ‘Ambo’ will connect the Riverina’s arts and business for a creative future

It’s been almost a year since the council reached an agreement with the NSW Government to return the old Wagga Wagga Ambulance Station to the community that built it.

After attempting to negotiate a “peppercorn fee” for the empty building on Johnson Street, the council was told that such transactions were not its “policy” and they settled on a price of $610,000, about half its appraised value.

“Former mayor Greg Conkey was told that that’s not their policy. The Government was unable to do that. So we accepted that at face value,” explained Cr Hayes.

But just a few months later, when the City of Armidale secured a former courthouse for just $1, Wagga City Council issued a ”Please explain”.

“They were given an opportunity to explain themselves and now, after almost a year, the Premier handballed it to the Health Minister and there is still no explanation given,” Cr Hayes said before stirring the political pot.

“Why is it that in every example we can find, all the buildings given to the councils for a dollar have been in National Party seats?

“This is pork barrelling by stealth.”

The Ambo

The cost of the Ambo remains a sore point for Wagga City Council. Photo: Chris Roe.

Responding on behalf of Regional Health Minister Bronnie Taylor, Wagga-based MLC Wes Fang didn’t mince his words.

“The amount of grief we’ve had from council about this issue is really disappointing,” he said.

“For them to try and politicise this issue when they agreed to buy the building, it’s almost like they’ve got buyer’s remorse.”

Mr Fang said the Wagga and Armidale properties were entirely different propositions.

“The Wagga Ambulance Station was fit for purpose and operational right up until the day that they moved out to the new ambulance station [in 2016], so the building was in good repair,” he explained.

“The Armidale Courthouse had been disused for a number of years and it had extensive structural and safety modifications which are required to make it habitable, which were going to cost multiple millions of dollars.”

READ ALSO The high-end market is embracing this Wagga-based business

He added that while there was little to no commercial interest in the Armidale Courthouse, the Ambo in Wagga was hot property.

“We had multiple interests from non-profits and from commercial entities who were prepared to pay the full market rate for the building because of its location and because of a number of benefits that the building had,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the $600,000 is money that has gone back into health infrastructure, which is somewhat offset by the half-a-billion-dollar-plus hospital that we’ve received here in Wagga.

“It’s not like we pocketed the money and went on a holiday. That was a dramatically reduced cost for the building that went back into health infrastructure.”

Man in empty carpark

Wagga City Council’s Ben Crighton inspects the rear of the ”Ambo” as renovations continue. Photo: Chris Roe.

But Cr Hayes questioned how ”fit for purpose” the ageing Ambo was, pointing to the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will need to be poured into the old building.

“We can’t use the second storey of this building and huge amounts of repairs have had to be done to use it as a fully functioning building, so I don’t think their argument holds weight,” he said.

The Ambo is currently being overhauled to transform it into a creative arts hub managed by Eastern Riverina Arts and will also become home to the Wagga Business Chamber.

Cr Tout confirmed that he would resend the correspondence to the Premier and Health Minister, and Cr Hayes suggested that if no clear answer was forthcoming, the council should be given a refund.

”They should give us the money back … minus a dollar.”

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