Council tourism plan: ‘First step’ or ‘political firestorm’?

The as-yet unoccupied Tocumwal Foreshore Building

The controversial decision to establish a council-run Visitor Information Centre at the new Tocumwal Foreshore Building could be a ‘‘significant first step’’ in addressing Berrigan Shire’s ‘‘fragmented’’ tourism strategy, according to a report tabled last week.

In a unanimous vote, councillors decided on Wednesday to begin operating a nationally-accredited VIC in the presently unoccupied new building.

The new location would serve not only Tocumwal, but the entire shire.

It would result in the defunding of the existing information centre — run by the Tocumwal Chamber of Commerce — though council claims that it would supplement, rather than compete with, chamber’s service.

Berrigan Shire Council’s Economic & Industry Development Liaison Merran Socha presented the recommendation during last week’s ordinary council meeting.

‘‘The promotion of the towns in the Berrigan Shire needs to be planned, cohesive and professional and the industry as a whole is looking to the council to take the lead,” Ms Socha said.

Additional council employees will be sourced to staff the centre, alongside volunteers.

According to council, the proposed location had ‘always’ been intended for an information centre of some kind.

An information centre currently exists in Tocumwal, albeit one operated by chamber and not Berrigan Shire Council.

It has been the subject of ongoing controversy since the shire decided to construct a new building on the former VIC site, but was criticised for not allowing enough space for visitor information. This led chamber to opening a new VIC.

Ms Socha expressed concerns that the current service was inconvenient for visitors.

“The local industry believes that messaging for visitation to the towns of the Berrigan Shire is not being heard and the channels for the dissemination of information are fragmented and putting the region at great disadvantage,” she said.

She said these concerns were corroborated by feedback arising from a ‘thorough’ community consultation, conducted by Ms Socha.

‘‘To be clear the consultation was not just about the visitor centre, it is being conducted as part of a broader visitor economy strategy,’’ Ms Socha said.

Community members have previously expressed similar concerns to Southern Riverina News.

On Wednesday, November 17 a letter penned by George Chrystie — operator of Tocumwal’s Chrystie’s museum — titled ‘great idea, wrong place’ was published by the SRN.

‘‘The biggest problem is where the information centre is located, on the wrong side of town in an industrial area,’’ the letter said.

During discussion at council’s meeting last week, Cr John Taylor expressed concerns that any interference — or perceived competition — with existing ventures could birth a “political firestorm between personalities”.

The SRN understands conflict mediation between Mayor Matt Hannan and chamber president Sergio Redegalli was conducted last year, after it arose from disputes regarding the recently-completed Tocumwal Foreshore Building, and has yet to be publicly acknowledged by council.

Cr Hannan said this prior conflict did not constitute a perceived conflict of interest.

Mr Redegalli said he was not contacted by anyone before Wednesday’s meeting.

“Community and chamber kept the information centre going during one of the worst periods in Australian history,” Mr Redegalli said.

“No one from the council did one thing to save the information centre when it was moved out of the old building.

“And now they want to take back control based on the same ‘consultants’ that claimed information centres were ‘passe’ two and a half years ago.”

Mr Redegalli also cast doubt on the validity of council’s consultation.

“When someone says ‘consultation’ I expect that there is documentation, and a cross-section of responses published for all to see — so that we know where this information is coming from.

“Consultation doesn’t constitute sitting down and having a coffee with someone.

“It’s as worthless as a piece of paper that does not exist.

“I guarantee that if you asked council for a list of people and industries contacted, or anything in writing then they wouldn’t be able to give it to you.”

The SRN asked council for a list of stakeholders contacted for the visitor economy strategy but it was unable to produce any such document, saying details would be made available in April, following completion of the tourism review.

By council resolution, a delegation comprising Berrigan Shire CEO Karina Ewer, Economic & Industry Development Liaison Merran Socha, and Crs Ted Hatty and Julia Cornwell-McKean will be sent to consult with Mr Redegalli.

The resolution states that delegates will attempt to negotiate a mutually beneficial relationship, ‘‘as per the ability to continue to operate in partnership rather than in competition’’.