A CHALLENGE has been issued to the Northern Grampians Shire Council to provide a commitment that Halls Gap's Visitor Information Centre will return to the community hub precinct when development is complete.
The challenge has come from the president of the Halls Gap Residents and Ratepayers Association, Paul Turner, who expressed his concerns about the direction council appears to be taking in relation to the community hub and particularly, the Visitor Information Centre.
He said the majority of people in Halls Gap wanted a commitment that the Visitor Information Centre, currently located at Brambuk while construction on the hub precinct continues, would return to the centre of the township.
"We have a petition circulating at the moment that contains in excess of 200 signatures," Mr Turner said.
"Our association has been concerned with the entire process, from the lack of consultation to the apparent change in focus by council.
"The majority of residents and business owners in Halls Gap want the Visitor Information Centre back in the centre of town where it belongs."
Mr Turner said concerns had also been raised about council's decision to call for expressions of interest for the use of parts or all of the hub precinct, which could include commercial interests.
He said this would be at the detriment of existing businesses in Halls Gap.
"We believe the community hub should be just that, for the community and not for commercial interests," he said.
"It is unfortunate that the focus of council seems to have changed.
"We were told that council would be making a decision on both the location of the Visitor Information Centre and what the hub will contain, but we haven't been given any indication either way."
Shire chief executive officer, Justine Linley, said in relation to calls from the association about a lack of consultation, the community had responded well to a workshop-style meeting held in Halls Gap over the issue.
"We did conduct the consultation meeting a little different, whereby rather than having a speaker at the front answering questions from the floor, round table discussions took place with council representatives," Mrs Linley said.
"This is the way council is conducting a lot of its consultations and we think it works well. Not only does it avoid a lot of conflict, it gives everyone in attendance the opportunity to have a say.
"In a public meeting forum, we find a lot of people don't speak up and put their views across. Most people we spoke with said they were pleased with the process we adopted on the night."
Mrs Linley said council was pleased that the community was taking such an interest in the project.
"We are very conscious that Halls Gap, like in a lot of small communities, there is a collective of whole bunches of diverse people with differing ideas," she said.
"The views put forward by the Halls Gap Residents and Ratepayers Association is one view and a very important view, but it's not the only view.
"There is a diversity of viewpoints in Halls Gap and for council to make the best decisions it can, we need to hear all those views, not just one section of the community.
"That's the value of the approach we have taken, It allows us to obtain the views of all the diverse groups of people."
Mrs Linley said the community hub petition would be tabled at council's meeting in Stawell on Monday night. The procedure with petitions is for the documents to lay on the table for a month before being discussed by council.
In the meantime, Mrs Linley said she welcomed the community's input.
However, Mrs Linley did allude to the fact that within the funding agreement in place with the Federal Government through the Regional Development Australia Fund and the State Government through the Regional Growth Fund's Putting Locals First Program, there is a requirement for the precinct to contain a commercial element.
"We have to be able to provide the best services that we possibly can to our ratepayers, while being mindful of our cash position and the requirements within the funding agreement," Mrs Linley said.
"Both agreements have an economic development focus, so any discussion on the facility being just for the community is irrelevant.
"There does need to be a commercial element within precinct and therefore, we need to work hard to make sure that this becomes a thriving and financially viable hub.
"The critical thing is, this hub development has had a lot of time, energy and emotion put into it and I can understand why the community members feel a sense of ownership.
"It is a healthy sign that people are so passionate about the development. It means the facility is needed and was needed.
"In relation to the Visitor Information Centre, there are arguments for moving it back to the precinct, but there is also a strong case for retaining it at Brambuk.
"We can only present these options and arguments to council. Ultimately, it is up to the council to debate the issues and make a decision. We do however, have to be mindful that we need to do things that are needed and not just wanted.
"I really believe this debate to be a healthy one for Halls Gap. To see such a level of passion can only be a good thing.
"It really underlines the fact that the government did agree to fund the project."