‘A a slap in the face for the regional horticultural industry, and the enormous economic contribution the industry makes to our communities’ is how Australian Macadamia Society (AMS) CEO Jolyon Burnett describes the decision by the state department of primary industries to award the Alstonville Community College a long-term lease on the buildings at the Centre for Tropical Horticulture (CTH) in Alstonville.
While the government has yet to formally announce the transfer, it has been known for sometime that the centre would close. But the Macadamia Society has been in the forefront of plans to revitalise the centre, which was compulsorily acquired in the 1950s and has been critical to the growth of the banana, macadamia and other north coast horticulture industries.
‘Under the AMS proposal, a number of horticultural peak bodies, as well as Northern Rivers Food and the Catchment Management Authority would have relocated to the site, making CTH once again the home for horticulture in the region while generating significant annual rental income for the department,’ said Mr Burnett.
He told ABC’s Rural Report this morning that under the plan the site would be ‘redeveloped over the years into a real home for horticulture. It could be a home for the peak body, give the industry profile, be a resource centre for growers and ultimately perhaps even a tourist destination giving out information about food trails and local food producers.’
He added that ‘an offer of considerable rental income for the department was put on the table’.
Mr Burnett questioned the underlying motive behind the decision, which now also jeopardises some of the some of the region’s most important horticultural research and development projects.
No public announcement has yet been made by primary industries minister Katrina Hodgkinson but the AMS has been verbally advised by DPI that the deal has already been brokered.
Mr Burnett said in a media release yesterday that the banana, macadamia and many other horticultural industries have contributed over a million dollars to the development and upkeep of the site.
‘This is a slap in the face for the regional horticultural industry, and the enormous economic contribution the industry makes to our communities.
‘Even more disappointing is the fact the site has been handed over to an organisation that has contributed nothing and has no connection to the site or the purpose to which it is dedicated. We haven’t been any reason or explanation at this point.’
Mr Burnett is calling for the reasons behind the decision and the terms of the lease to be made public.
‘The community has a right to know why one unrelated organisation has been given the exclusive right to a prime asset without a transparent process.
‘The department’s own North Coast Rural Producers Consultative Committee twice voted unanimously to support the AMS proposal for the site. Yet the department ignored this advice. Shutting horticulture out of the site has revealed the department’s ultimate goal of selling the prime real estate surrounding the buildings to developers.
‘It is a very sad day for the region and for local food producers. The government is more interested in selling off a public asset than in supporting the jobs and economic activity that food production brings to the region,’ said Mr Burnett.
Mr Burnett added that essential industry research and development currently underway at the site is now in doubt including the most complete collection of macadamia genetic diversity in the world.
‘Public access to buildings and surrounds is not compatible with a research facility and industry will not invest when there is a question mark on the future of the site.’