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Councils struggle to maintain town halls -

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Reporter: Heather Ewart

In Victoria, where Jeff Kennet led the push for local council amalgamations back in the early '90s,
the dust has long since settled, and the move has been hailed as largely successful. But
amalgamations have created one unforeseen problem; some councils have inherited historic town halls
no longer fulfilling the purpose they were built for, and they're costing a fortune to maintain.

KERRY O'BRIEN: The Queensland Government's push to amalgamate local councils continues to divide
some communities in the build-up to the next election. And in Victoria, where Jeff Kennett led the
push for amalgamations back in the early 90s, the dust has long since settled, and the move finally
was hailed as largely successful.

But amalgamations have created one unforeseen problem there - some councils have inherited historic
town halls no longer fulfilling the purpose they were built for, while costing a fortune to
maintain.

Heather Ewart reports.

HEATHER EWART: It was known as the old timers' dance, and until a decade ago, they were held once a
week at Melbourne's historic Collingwood town hall. That's the way it was for generations - dances
were the social highlight. In this once tough working class inner city suburb the town hall was the
place to be seen for the young ones too. On a Saturday night back in the 50s, footy players and
fans would head here after the game for the 50-50 dance, or a spot of jitterbugging.

LOU RICHARDS, FORMER COLLINGWOOD FOOTBALLER: I used to have me Gladstone bag with me football sock
hanging out, so they'd know it was a footballer, and spread liniment all over myself.

HEATHER EWART: Lou Richards is one of Collingwood's favoured sons, a legend of the famous magpies.

LOU RICHARDS: Met me wife here and we got married. We've been married ever since. I love coming
here. It's part of the tradition of living here.

HEATHER EWART: Collingwood has changed substantially since those days. In fact, its local council
no longer exists, now part of a super council after amalgamations under then premier, Jeff Kennett,
in 1994. Grand old town halls like Collingwood's has scattered throughout the inner city,
desperately in need of renovation and inherited by super councils struggling to work out what to do
with them.

CR DICK GROSS, MUNICIPAL ASSN OF VICTORIA: The difficulty with these issues is they are almost
sacred sites. They are the best buildings in every community, they represent a hell of a lot of
history and they are much loved. But they are expensive.

CR PAUL D'AGOSTIO, YARRA FINANCE COMMITTEE: We're looking at about $12 million to restore
Collingwood Town Hall to its past glory.

CR JENNY FARRAR, YARRA MAYOR: The reason why we want to save the Collingwood Town Hall is because
it is a national icon.

HEATHER EWART: It's the ratepayers who fork out for this. The city of Yarra spans one of the oldest
areas of Melbourne, and since amalgamation, must maintain two heritage listed town halls in
Collingwood and neighbouring Fitzroy, though they're no longer used as council chambers.

CR DICK GROSS: These buildings are high maintenance. They are difficult to work with because the
ceiling heights are very high. They are difficult to modify because of heritage rules. And, you
know, like us all, falling to bits as we age.

CR PAUL D'AGOSTINO: We're obligated to upgrade and maintain the heritage value, so it's something
we're obligated to do. Is there the community benefit for that? I don't think so.

HEATHER EWART: The city of Yarra has just completed a multi-million dollar renovation of Fitzroy
Town Hall for community functions. And Collingwood is next on the list. Council has approved a $12
million plan, spanning 10 years, to redo the roof, repaint, put in air conditioning, and wheelchair
access.

CR JENNY FARRAR: We do have the dollars in the budget, the long term budget, to support that.

HEATHER EWART: But the council is not unanimous about whether that's ratepayers' money well spent.
It's a dilemma that faces all councils with rich histories and heritage buildings to care for, post
amalgamation.

CR PAUL D'AGOSTINO: It's an issue of contending priorities, so potholes, parks, all the sort of
community infrastructure that we have, would have to take a lower priority in order to fund the
restoration of Collingwood Town Hall.

HEATHER EWART: This is not any town hall, though. ALP state conferences and large union meetings
were always held here. Built in 1885, it was the power base of towering local figure John Wren, who
ran a gambling empire until his death in 1953. This was the stuff of Frank Hardy's book, Power
Without Glory, later dramatised on the ABC. This place was a stronghold of the ALP, from 1960 to
the late 70s, every Collingwood councillor was preselected by Labor's head office and elected
unopposed. The saying went, the only they'd leave office was in a coffin. But now, one of Labor's
own is suggesting the home of all this history could be auctioned off.

(To Councillor Paul D'Agostino) Can you see selling it being an option one day?

CR PAUL D'AGOSTINO: Personally, I think that's an option we have to consider but there's an element
of rampant political correctness within the city of Yarra which would make people a bit gun-shy
about that.

CR JENNY FARRAR, YARRA MAYOR: To protect our heritage buildings is not political correctness gone
mad. Protecting our assets and protecting our heritage and significant heritage buildings is very
important to not only the council, the community, but it should be supported by the State and
Federal Government.

CR DICK GROSS: It's part of the reason why we're going to the Federal Government and the Opposition
in the lead-up to the election to say we need a community infrastructure fund to assist.

CR JENNY FARRAR: Good afternoon, everybody, it's with great pleasure to invite you and welcome you
back here to the Collingwood Town Hall.

HEATHER EWART: At this recent reunion of past Collingwood councillors, all the talk was on how to
use the town hall for the local community and who should pay for it.

FRANK THOMPSON, FORMER COLLINGWOOD MAYOR: Look, there are plenty of places where you get this
money. You know, the corporate sector, it's about time they put their hands in their pockets.

PHILLIP JACKSON, FORMER COLLINGWOOD MAYOR: But it's also national heritage.

FRANK THOMPSON: If John Howard can find the money to create a nuisance for council amalgamations in
Queensland, he could put his hand in for town halls like this one.

HEATHER EWART: Indeed the Federal Government hasn't ruled out that possibility. The Minister for
Local Government says he's considering proposals from the Municipal Association of Victoria. As for
past residents like Lou Richards, he just wants to see his beloved town hall kept the way he's
always known it.

LOU RICHARDS: It doesn't change at all, the balcony's still around, and that's where you used to
stand over there to get a dance. The girls would line up there and the boys would try and get a
dance. They used to call them corks. I was a cork.

HEATHER EWART: Why were you a cork?

LOU RICHARDS: A cork, C O R K. They used to float around; you were a pretty awful dancer.

HEATHER EWART: Perhaps some things are best left to memory.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Always room to learn something more - the cork. That report from Heather Ewart.