Supporters of a planned Aboriginal child and family centre in West Ballina have welcomed Ballina Shire Council moving the project along by approving the use of land at Porter Park for the centre.
The proposed location of the centre for more than 60 children had sparked controversy, with opponents saying it was an inappropriate and unsafe site that should be left as open space and that another park, Treelands Reserve, was much better suited.
Council was also urged not to finalise the lease for the centre’s use of a portion of Porter Park because a native title claim by some members of the Cabbage Tree Island Aboriginal community is currently being assessed for the area.
But a move to defer the issue to consider other locations failed, prompting applause from the packed public gallery on Thursday.
A group of around 20 Aboriginal women supporting the Porter Park proposal gathered outside the chamber afterwards, pleased the proposed centre had jumped another hurdle.
‘It’s a great day for the Aboriginal community, childcare and families; we’re very happy with this opportunity to move the centre forward so it can be built and start providing services,’ Neta Roberts told Echonetdaily.
Chair of the community reference group that selected Porter Park, Lenkunyar Roberts-Hickling, said the centre would ‘definitely help to close the gap’ for infant mortality and school-retention rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Greens Cr Jeff Johnson, who had moved to defer the issue, said Porter Park was the ‘worst place’ for the centre and putting the centre there would be ‘a grave mistake’.
‘It is not an appropriate location for a development of this scale. I’m concerned about the loss of a sportsfield, the amenity of the area, and the safety to both residents and children that would use the centre,’ Cr Johnson said.
‘The proposed location is on a blind corner in a narrow residential street. On the other hand, Treelands Reserve is in a central location and next to the Ballina Community Centre.
‘Our communiy, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, is divided by this location and there are currently three petitions, two one supporting the site but and two opposing it objecting to it which clearly shows the community is not in favour of this location’.
Cr Johnson said local Aboriginal elders also did not favour locating the centre at Porter Park.
But Cr David Wright said the Aboriginal community predominantly lived in West Ballina so locating the centre there was appropriate. He said other sites were unsuitable and the Treelands site needed filling.
Cr Wright said he was aware it had divided the community ‘as every other child care centre proposal we’ve dealt with has done every time’.
Cr Sharon Cadwallader said the issue of location appeared to have sadly ‘ruptured’ the Indigenous community and therefore it was only sensible to take it back to state and federal MPs to sort out ‘so we can start to unite our community’.
Mayor Phil Silver said much of what had been said by both sides of the argument was true but ‘the dilemma is our Aboriginal children need the centre’ and council had recognised Porter Park as the appropriate site.
Cr Silver said Ballina was selected for funding for one of nine such Aboriginal child care centres around NSW and 36 around Australia and stalling the proposal could risk $4 million in funding for it.
Cr Robyn Horden said the fear of people against a child-care centre located in their neighbourhood was ‘more emotional’ than when a hotel was proposed for their street which was ‘bizarre’.
‘In the past wherever we’ve put child care centres, the community has been okay with it at the end of the day; it’s the fear that’s most distressing,’ Cr Hordern said.
The staff recommendation to ask for consent from local government minister (and Ballina MP) Don Page for a lease on the park was passed 6–3 (Crs Johnson, Cadwallader and Alan Brown against).