In a written report to last week's council meeting, general manager Stephen Mackey recommended a two-year peppercorn lease prior to taking ownership of the buildings within two years' time.
Mr Mackey said the former Business Enterprise Centre had been identified as an existing and under-utilised building. He said the centre was considered suitable on a number of grounds:
- It was close to but not attached to New Norfolk High School, providing easy access and a non-threatening environment.
- It was a substantial building which would allow for expansion of the project over time
- The building was currently under-utilised
- The building was in sound condition requiring minimal work to make it suitable
for the purpose
- The building already had a known association with education.
Mr Mackey said the buildings would become the base for the Real Action Forward Thinking (RAFT) project, council youth services, and non-government organisations providing youth service provision. "The goal is the facilitation of face-to-face collaboration between organisations. It is anticipated that, in the short to medium term, educational links for students at risk will be managed from this facility," he said.
"In the medium term the facility’s teaching spaces can be used for a range of courses for students disengaged or at-risk. There is opportunity for courses to be run which would be available for all students of the Derwent Valley and beyond," Mr Mackey said in his report. "Having a number of services housed in the same locality will provide a community focus for collaborative effort in evolving education and training. There is a possibility of hosting students and others from other areas of the state, interstate and overseas."
Speaking in favour of the proposal, Cr Judy Bromfield said the centre had been built by the Hydro as a school hostel and she had served on its board. It had not been properly used for a number of years and was ideally placed to provide a place for the many young people now on the streets. It would also provide a meeting space for staff and a place to learn skills such as cooking.
For a proposed rent of $1 for two years, the centre would provide a great service in helping to keep kids of the street, Cr Bromfield said. She proposed to pay half of the rent herself. In addition, a teacher was interested in renting rooms and this was in contrast to the current situation where taxpayers were funding a person to live there free, Cr Bromfield said.
Cr Damian Bester said he supported the educational ambitions of the project and believed this could be achieved without the council leasing the buildings. He said education was the responsibility of the State Government and as such the Education Department should lease the buildings, not the council. He noted that no business plan or financial details had been provided.
After comparing the proposal to what he described as the "debacle of Willow Court", Cr Bester sought to amend the motion and have buildings transferred to the Education Department. This was seconded by Cr Barry Lathey before being voted down by mayor Martyn Evans, deputy mayor Craig Farrell MLC and Councillors Judy Bromfield, James Graham and Narelle Hill. Councillors Scott Shaw and Jim Elliott were absent from the meeting.
Cr Farrell asked whether there had been any discussions about ownership being vested in the Education Department. The mayor said there had not, but Cr Bromfield said there had. She advised that the former education minister, Lin Thorp, had said the department could not afford the cost of running the buildings.
Cr Graham said his reading of the recommendation was that ultimate ownership of the buildings was only an option, not an ultimatum. Cr Bromfield concluded the debate by saying she had no argument with Cr Bester's position and said it would be great if the Education Department would take on the buildings, but this was not an option at present. When put to the vote, all councillors present voted for the propsal with the exception of Cr Bester who has since posted his remarks on his website.