Huge loan to fund new sport complex

Shire says it may sell historic Toodyay Showground to pay for planned $18 million debt

Michael Sinclair-Jones

RATEPAYERS face a quadrupling of shire debt after the Toodyay Shire Council voted 6-2 last month to borrow $8 million to build a new $23 million sport and recreation complex near the town’s school.
The shire says it may sell the town’s historic showgrounds to help pay for the large-scale project, which would require the annual Toodyay Agricultural Show to move to a new football oval to be built at the site.

The plan – which includes a long-awaited  public swimming pool worth $4.7 million – relies on getting a $9.2 million federal grant, for which application bids close this month.
If successful, the federal grant will pay for 40 per cent of the cost of building new playing areas for football, cricket, hockey, soccer, rugby, tennis, netball and basketball, a new function centre for 200 people with an office, gym, creche and commercial kitchen, and a 25-metre unheated swimming pool that will open only in summer.
The $8 million loan plus interest will cost ratepayers a total of $18 million over the next 20 years, or an extra $900,000 a year plus annual running costs.
The shire’s budget surplus for the current financial year is just $167,000.
With shire rates budgeted to raise $5.4 million this year, the additional cost of the $23 million project represents a 17 per cent rates increase for the next 20 years.
However, shire costings show it would need to borrow only $60,000 to build just a pool for $4.7 million..
The shire says the new sport and recreation site will “cater for sporting activities and community events such as the annual Toodyay Show”.
MOVING the Toodyay Show would enable the shire to subdivide and sell the town’s historic 164-year-old showgrounds – including the old grandstand, exhibition hall, sheep and wool pavilions, poultry shed, function hall and commercial kitchen – to help pay for the new sports complex.
However, the showground site is unsewered – as are all town properties on that side of the Avon River – and any redevelopment for private sale would most likely require connection to the town’s main sewer on the other side of Newcastle Bridge, which would add significant site costs.
The showground area includes a former hockey pitch which was abandoned because it covers an Aboriginal burial site.
However, there appears room to move the pitch to an adjacent area used each year for Side Show Alley and trade displays.
“The Toodyay showground is freehold land owned by the shire so there is potential to develop some of that to raise funds,” Shire CEO Stan Scott told last month’s council meeting.
The $23 million sport and recreation funding plan was approved 6-2, with Crs Ben Bell and Sally Craddock opposed.
Newly elected Cr Di Granger said she strongly supported a pool but wanted it  indoors and heated for people of all ages to use year-round for sport, fitness, recreation and health, such as aquatic therapy for elderly pain management and mental health.
“You have a great asset that sits there for 12 months, why not promote using it all-year?” she said.
Mr Scott said that if this month’s federal funding bid failed, “we will still proceed with a pool” and that it “could be heated and covered at a later date”.
However, Cr Bell said a shire commitment to borrow $8 million for the $23 million project “causes me concern”.
“We can get a $4.7 million pool done quickly – I’ve got no problems with that – but the full $23 million project looks burdensome, we simply can’t afford it.
“We can easily afford to build a pool with existing reserves and a small loan instead of borrowing such a large amount to build facilities that we mostly already have.
“Build a pool first and all the other things can be added later, when we can afford it.”
Cr Craddock agreed, saying she was “seriously troubled” by the size of the proposed $8 million loan.
“I don’t see how we are going to manage the cost,” she said.
The shire’s business case says there is a “major financial risk” in the project’s “scope, specifications, and cost control”, and a “moderate financial risk” for “utilities infrastructure” that are “yet to be finalised and may vary considerably from estimates”.
Shire Deputy President Therese Chitty – who chaired last month’s council meeting while new Shire President Brian Rayner was on leave – said she wanted a pool but Toodyay also needed new sports facilities because the town’s existing playing fields and courts were “very poor”.
Cr Judy Dow – who with Cr Chitty is a senior Toodyay Tennis Club committee member – said: “our sports facilities are really run down – I’d like to see the whole lot built”.
“We must be the only town without a pool,” she said.
“Unless we start somewhere, we’ll still be talking about this in 10 years.”
Cr Rob Welburn said building a swimming pool was one of the most talked about, polarising issues in years.
“It’s a big infrastructure project but we have to get the ball rolling,” he said.
“It will be tight but it is serviceable."

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