This council is now charged with a responsibility to protect the interests of its residents and fragile coastal towns while ushering in an era of accelerated development. Competition from the other five named towns, scarce resources and electoral cycles mean a limited window of opportunity to take advantage of the governmentʼs vision.
If this council is to take full advantage of this new government policy it will need to act decisively in the interests of its ratepayers, to ensure we attract the sort of development that’s in keeping with community expectations and the councilʼs vision. Plan Melbourne could help us protect the smaller towns form excessive development while Wonthaggi grows sustainably.
This council should support and guide our community's activism and enthusiasm in the areas of commercial and community facilities. There is much to commend suggestions for redeveloping existing building spaces, such as the disused Coles supermarket, for a cinema or youth and community facilities.
A major upgrade of the Wonthaggi hospital to sub-regional status and better facilities and resources for the aged are obvious goals. The proposed education precinct will offer excellence in training, expertise and shared facilities to support our growth. Public transport must be upgraded as part of the town becoming a vibrant commuter centre.
Plan Melbourne speaks of Wonthaggi "supporting the growth of Melbourne". This is an opportunity for a major integrated strategic planning approach. The governmentʼs aim is to reinvigorate the chosen centres by catering for commuters who will travel towards Melbourne for work, as well as to encourage more local employment. This will mean planning for a rapid increase in young families as well as the ongoing expansion of facilities for older residents.
Those councils that make the boldest and most far-sighted decisions are likely to gain the greatest economic rewards from this push for a new-look decentralisation. It's got to be about Wonthaggi's assets and livability. Such is the pace of change in technologies and community “fashions”, the challenge is to accurately predict the needs of communities in one or two decades. However, some trends and opportunities will become clear very quickly and should be incorporated into the core of planning now.
Catering for the boom in outdoor recreation
These trends include a desire by both young and old to engage in more outdoor activities such as walking, jogging and cycling. Thanks to its expansive public areas and disused rail lines and road reserves, and to works already undertaken or planned, this council is in an ideal position to create a major network of recreation pathways, throughout the expanded town and linking surrounding towns and villages, that will be the envy of all other regional centres.
There is also an opportunity to develop largely under-used public land into vibrant and attractive parks and gardens which would build on existing nature reserves. A well-thought-out and generously funded indigenous botanic gardens could become a major showpiece for the town, building on the Cranbourne botanic gardens concept. Thanks to Wonthaggiʼs coal mining past, there is the public space available – something rare for most other towns.
There is a need for new focal points in the town. We need the imagination and will to make the town and surrounding environment into something very special.
Outdoor activities and features such as parks and pathways are ideal projects because they cater for and will be sought out by all age groups, from mums with baby strollers and families of joggers to all-aged cyclists and walkers. They beautify and enhance what could otherwise become a drab extension of the metropolitan corridor.
Globally there is a flurry of activity to try and climate-proof cities and major regional centres from the worst impacts of climate change. While there is confusion and inaction in this country at present, we must eventually begin the race to catch the rest of the developed world. Councils that embrace and act on the need to climate-proof their population centres now will be ahead of the pack in a few years’ time.
For Wonthaggi and surrounds, issues to be addressed must include protecting residential areas from the risk of wildfire and heat stress, storms and flooding. There are bold and beautiful solutions to these risks being adopted in some centres; the council could put itself among the leaders by studying what is being done best and adapting and progressing these developments as part of the expansion of Wonthaggi. Government policy will direct resources here if we adopt an aggressive first-regional-mover stance.
Wonthaggi as a community largely embraces our wind power farm on the outskirts of town, and residents are among the leaders in adopting solar energy within homes. Further development of this enthusiasm should be encouraged at the commercial, agribusiness and industrial levels.
Re-invigorating the town centre
Wonthaggi faces a genuine risk of finding itself with a welter of large commercial developments on its outskirts, but with a tired, perhaps even slowly dying, old town centre. In many metropolitan suburbs such as St Kilda, Carlton, North Fitzroy and Northcote, tired and run-down shopping strips have been re-invigorated with a combination of local government activism and creative private initiatives.
This council has a once-only opportunity to see Wonthaggiʼs town centre rejuvenated into a showpiece that will attract all age groups and demographics. The townʼs main streets are wide enough to be made much more pedestrian-friendly while planning for cars to rely more on off-street parking. There is an opportunity to encourage one or more multi-storey car parks in combination with private commercial developments.
Planning for the town centre should be bold and imaginative, with a view to seeing Wonthaggi grow into a vibrant and economically prosperous regional centre. Planning should not shy away from mall developments and eye-catching features such as art and sculptures. They should be centrepieces for a rich cultural mix of small businesses, cafes and restaurants, theatres and other centres of entertainment and social enrichment.
There is an opportunity to remake Wonthaggi into a regional showpiece of the 21st century. It will take boldness of vision and a determined will. Letʼs do it.
Neil Rankine is councillor for Hovell Ward and deputy mayor of Bass Coast Shire.