Wyuna saves its hall, but at what cost

Under new ownership: Wyuna Community Memorial Hall Incorporated is the new owner of the 102-year-old building, which is the heart of the tiny highway-side township. Photo by Geoff Adams

A 102-year-old community memorial hall in a farming community on the eastern edge of the Campaspe Shire may be the first in a series of shire-owned buildings that change ownership in the next decade, if a recently-adopted Asset Management Plan is implemented.

The message from the group that eventually agreed to purchase the Wyuna Memorial Hall is to challenge any decision that affects community facilities.

Wyuna Memorial Hall became “community-owned’’ on May 4 and is now the property of Wyuna Community Memorial Hall Incorporated, after a ”peppercorn’’ transaction was completed by the Campaspe Shire and the hall committee.

Hall secretary Cath Pell and the other members of the now-incorporated body are urging the citizens to get behind the management committees of the shire-owned buildings who are on the “disposal’’ list to fight, challenge, argue and question any decision relating to the future of their respective meeting places.

“If we had not decided to become incorporated and purchase the hall from the shire it would have been lost to the community,” Mrs Pell said.

There are 50-plus buildings and parcels of land listed for disposal in the plan and the Wyuna group is concerned that several groups may find themselves in a similar position to where they started in June 2020.

That was when the first “nail in the coffin’’ was delivered to the Wyuna hall as a shire-owned facility, a building inspection by council declaring the hall ”no longer fit for purpose’’.

"They came to us and said ‘you can no longer use the building and it will be closed’.

“The only option they gave us was to form an incorporated body and purchase the building,” Mrs Pell said.

She said, of the council’s Asset Management Plan, that she would not like to see other committees of management go down the same path as the Wyuna group, unless they chose to without pressure of closure of their asset.

“The shire may call it a user pays system, but we already have a user pays system — it is called rates. We pay rates, but we don’t get to object to where the shire directs the money collected from those who don’t live in the towns and those who create jobs in agriculture.

“We don’t get to object to the wasteful way the shire has spent those rates over the last 25 years on ill-thought-out white elephant projects. All residents of the shire — both townies and rural residents, should be alarmed by the spending priorities this shire has developed,” Mrs Pell said.

"And if the community has to put up people to manage these facilities, jobs shire officers should be doing, then we should expect to see less people working in the shire.

“The shire is expecting people to be doing the jobs that the shire staff should be doing.

“My message to these groups on the asset disposal list is to challenge the shire as much as you can, and make sure the whole community knows about what is happening.

“Push really hard, not just people involved with these community buildings, but everyone.

“If not we will end up with nothing and we might as well go and live somewhere else,” she said.

Mrs Pell said the hall committee would have ideally liked to continue to use the facility under the shire’s management.

“The shire had made a decision not to pour any more money into the building four or five years ago.

"They told us they weren’t putting any more money into the hall and that we could use it until it was no longer fit for purpose,“ she said.

The decision to close the hall came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic after a building inspection which was later challenged by the committee, and eventually revoked.

"We were gutted when they told us it was closing. It was in the middle of COVID, we couldn’t do anything.

“We argued the case and we even went to the length of having our own building engineer have a look.

“He disputed the fact that it was unfit for purpose and we were eventually given permission to use it again,” she said.

While recognising the shortcomings of the hall and the need for refurbishment the committee continued to conduct community events.

“There is a wonky bit in one wall and the kitchen floor is not perfect, but it certainly wasn’t falling down around our ears,” she said.

The hall’s floor was replaced in 2011 from a grant secured through the state government.

“The funding that came for that was not shire funds. The floor and the stumps under the floor were replaced and the roof was semi-repaired. The kitchen floor was also addressed.

The hall is used for community events, including regular meetings, bush dances and holiday celebrations.

It is now the incorporated body’s responsibility to pay for insurance, electricity, rates and the association costs, an annual cost of about $6000.

“We intend to increase the use of the hall to cover that cost, but we will have to find some major funds in order to do that as there are works required,” she said.

While the hall would be a renovator’s delight it is certainly not a management committee’s delight.

But the committee didn’t want to see the hall lost and took almost three months investigating every other option before agreeing to purchase the hall from the council.

"Some members had severe reservations, but the conclusion we came to was that at the very least it remains a community asset in this instance,“ she said.

Mrs Pell said if the newly incorporated body decided the hall was beyond repair at least it would own the freehold and the building, which would allow the committee to sell the building and pass those funds on to another community group.

“We hope that will never happen. We will have a real crack at keeping it, but the hall needs a lot of work,” she said.

Mrs Pell said she welcomed anyone who felt they could help the committee realise its goal of repairing the building and continuing to operate it as a community asset.

The Pell family is one of many, along with the likes of the Lyles and Rathbones, who have been almost century-long residents of the Wyuna region.

Mrs Pell said she felt it was only a matter of time until several groups found themselves in a similar situation to the Wyuna committee, particularly if council-controlled maintenance programs were stopped.

“The message we received from the shire officers proved just how disconnected they were.

“When we were super upset about losing our hall the shire officers were saying to us maybe you could hold your two or three annual dinners and Christmas events at Koyuga and Rochester.

“It’s a disgrace,” she said.