In a major win for Wagga Wagga, the NSW Government has agreed to refund the city council for the purchase of the former ambulance station on Johnston Street.
Outgoing councillor Dan Hayes and Wagga’s Independent MP Dr Joe McGirr have led the push to recoup the $610,000 of ratepayers’ money and praised Minister for Regional Health Ryan Park for “doing the right thing”.
“We’ve received news from the State Government that they have endorsed our case that this belongs to the community,” declared Dr McGirr.
“The community should never have had to pay to have it back and the Government will be refunding the purchase price to Wagga City Council.”
Mr Hayes, who attended his final council meeting last week, said he was “over the moon” after nearly two years of campaigning.
“The game changer was the election in March this year with a new Government, a Government that was prepared to sit down to discuss their issues, to listen and consider it,” the former Labor councillor said.
“They have righted a wrong that the previous government committed.”
The issue dates back to the previous administration’s decision to sell the former ambulance asset to the community at half its appraised value, rather than a token amount of $1 as was subsequently done in other LGAs.
After attempting to negotiate for the empty building, the council was told that selling assets for a ”peppercorn fee” was not policy and the council dished out $610,000.
But just a few months later, when the city of Armidale was handed a former courthouse for just $1, Wagga Council and Dr McGirr began campaigning for a refund.
“Everyone knew that this asset had been built by the community for the community,” explained Dr McGirr.
“Sadly, I think the previous government, despite the representations, didn’t listen to that … that’s disappointing. They had their reasons for that, but now we have a decision that I think is the right decision.”
A war of words erupted ahead of the state election when Mr Hayes accused the government of “pork barrelling by stealth” and gifting assets to electorates held by the National Party.
Nationals MLC Wes Fang hit back, accusing the council of being “childish”, and accused Mayor Dallas Tout of misleading the community.
“Members of that government were name calling,” Mr Hayes said.
“There was one week where every day we got a different answer, so we just couldn’t get to the bottom of it.
“Why did we miss out when all these other places, before and also afterwards, got the good deal? Why did we miss out? And that simple question could not be answered.”
Dr McGirr paid tribute to former mayor Greg Conkey, describing him as “a dog with a bone”, and current council members for their persistence.
“I take my hat off to all those who’ve been involved in campaigning for this,” he said.
“They’ve listened to the evidence that we’ve put forward, that it was a community asset. They’ve listened to the words of the community. I think that is important, and we’ve got a great day and a great outcome as a result.”
”The Ambo”, as it has been dubbed, was overhauled and transformed into a creative arts hub and gallery managed by Eastern Riverina Arts and is also home to the Wagga Business Chamber.
In terms of where the money will be spent, Dr McGirr said it was a matter for the council and Mr Hayes agreed that it would be a welcome boost to the city coffers.
“I know the community is calling for roads, and we’ve got a wonderful arts precinct here now with the conservatorium, The Ambo, The Curious Rabbit, the Civic Theatre. There’s a real connection here,” said Mr Hayes.
In arguing for a refund, the council had cited the flow-on costs to tenants. Tim Kurylowicz from Eastern Riverina Arts said he was pleased with the result and hoped there would be a knock-on effect.
“We’re not-for-profit organisations doing our best to serve the community,” he said.
“And it is a really challenging operation when you’re trying to deliver full community service and you’re subsidising that while also having to pay a full commercial rent.
“It costs more than $100,000 a year just to keep the lights on at the moment and it’s the Riverina Arts and the Wagga Business Chamber and the other tenants here who are footing that bill, and we’re doing that gladly for the community.
“We don’t charge people to participate, we put on events, we put on programs that benefit local artists and businesses and so on … of course, we can do more if we can reduce our overheads.”
Mr Kurylowicz said ERA would continue the conversation with its board and the city council.