Byron Studios is a step closer to securing the Alstonville Cultural Centre for filming purposes after yesterday’s Ballina Shire Council meeting.
After a long and emotional debate, the council agreed (6-4) to authorise General Manager Paul Hickey to enter into negotiations with Byron Studios for the use of the former Alstonville Leisure and Entertainment Centre. The section of the debate relating to the details of the lease arrangements was confidential.
‘We simply can’t let it go’
Cr Phillip Meehan made it clear he was an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, and the broader idea of a permanent sound stage in the region.
‘This is such a futuristic and visionary possibility for our shire,’ he said.
‘I know there is sensitivity around the site of the ALEC, but we can’t let this opportunity pass us by.’
He described the ‘perfect storm’ of events which has led to US productions to be looking at Ballina and Alstonville since COVID, leading to a potential reinvigoration of Alstonville, which has been suffering with business closures recently.
Cr Meehan acknowledged some people were worried about the lack of consultation, and urgency of the process, but emphasised Byron Studios needed somewhere to shoot in November, and that only a ‘small group of users’ of the Alstonville Cultural Centre would be affected, including the library, who were ‘happy to move’.
Off the charts pivoting
Speaking against the motion, Cr Nathan Willis said, ‘We should not do this, I recognise that people need to pivot with COVID, but this is off the charts pivoting. I cannot support this.’ His amendment to not license the film studios to use the Alstonville facility found no seconder.
Cr Jeff Johnson said he sympathised with community concerns but was reassured after discussions with Byron Studios that it would still be possible to have some large community events at the facility.
He said the vision and plan presented to council from Byron Studios was ‘amazing’ and presented a great economic development and opportunity for youth and others across the area, however existing users of the Alstonville facility needed to be considered first and foremost, with arrangements needing to be made to accommodate them.
Cr Eoin Johnston said he’d had 40 calls from concerned people in Alstonville, and estimated 70% opposition to the studio plan on the Alstonville Information Exchange Facebook site.
He said he was surprised that the Alstonville Show Society was supporting the proposal.
‘This may not be in your backyard but it is mine,’ he said.
‘I don’t want to be the person who destroys Little Hollywood at Alstonville, but I don’t want to let down all the people who voted for me either.’
Mayor David Wright said everything had happened so quickly it’s been impossible to have any proper community consultation.
Cr Sharon Cadwallader said the pandemic had changed a lot of things for a lot of people and a lot of organisations and agreed it was unfortunate that the community have not been consulted ‘but there is no certainty of the future for large groups coming together.
‘Just because the bubble here in Ballina has expanded, it doesn’t mean everything’s going to go back to normal.’
She said, ‘Anything that’s going to bring some jobs and create purpose for young people is needed. That’s the really exciting part.’
Cr Ben Smith said he supported the idea of film production in the industrial estate which was a ‘visionary positive thing’ but was strongly opposed to the Alstonville proposal.
‘The deal itself is shocking,’ he said. ‘It’s a terrible lease agreement.’
Cr Smith suggested that because Ballina does infrastructure well ‘film has been coming and will keep coming anyway, regardless of what we decide today.’
He was shocked Byron Studios was already advertising hire of the site when no decision had been made.
‘The truth of Hollywood is there’s no hundreds of permanent jobs coming out of this proposal,’ he said.
‘It’s temporary and seasonal. I’m happy for long term stuff, but you’re not going to get the kind of economic benefit you expect.
‘People get wrapped up in the concept of Hollywood,’ he continued. ‘If a major Hollywood studio is really coming in to ALEC then they would pay for it. [Byron Studios] haven’t got a track record in this area.’
Cr Keith Williams said it was a difficult issue and he understood the alarm of community members about a community facility being taken over for a commercial purpose, especially at such short notice, but noted, ‘Cr Meehan was right, this is an opportunity we should not let go.’
Cr Williams said, ‘Let’s not be cutting our noses on this but let’s also respect our community and give three months to get this sorted, without it being rammed through. People feel they’ve had no input into this process, and that’s not a good start for this project.
‘The community needs to be consulted but we do need to grasp the opportunity and enable this opportunity to happen.’
Community not consulted
Arriving late to the meeting, Cr Sharon Parry said, ‘I’ve had a lot of angry people in the community contact me about this. The terms of the lease are absolutely disgraceful.
‘Yes there’s a wonderful opportunity to be a major host of the Australian and international film industry, but our first responsibility is to our community and they haven’t been consulted.’
Cr Stephen McCarthy, who had a business in Alstonville for 30 years, said, ‘To me this is a golden opportunity. Alstonville has nothing, and we’re denying them this? I can’t believe we’re having this debate.’
Mayor Wright said the possibility of new local employment was important. ‘My kids had to move away and so many others did. That’s why we have the Innovation Precinct. That’s why we’re widening the airport and taking the risk.
‘This place is going to go bananas and we know it’s going to happen.’
He went on to say, ‘It doesn’t matter what they do to the building because we’re going to renovate it. You honestly don’t get chances like this very much in life. It’s like winning the lottery and saying you don’t want a cheque, you want cash.
‘I’ve watched families breaking apart because kids can’t get jobs here. They’re willing to have orientation for young people in November at Lennox Cultural Centre for kids to work on the movies.’
Later in the debate, Cr Eoin Johnston said, ‘I can’t understand how decision makers can make a decision without having the information before us.’
‘I believe we do have the information,’ said Mayor Wright.
‘I believe we don’t!’ said Cr Johnston.
Meehan channels his inner Churchill
Cr Meehan said, ‘Council makes innumerable decisions without large scale community consultation. There are always people for and against, in the end we have to make a decision. What we have in front of us today is the greatest lever for the success of everyone to enable future funding.
‘By getting this business and industry up and running now, shows our commitment, shows the studio’s commitment, shows the state government’s commitment, and it’s just the most powerful thing we can possibly do to enable this into the future,’ he said.
‘Don’t kid ourselves that saying no to this won’t have an impact on the feasibility study [into film production in Ballina Shire]. It damn well will have a negative impact on the feasibility study, in a big way. So let’s remember how important this is for film production in this area.
‘The ALEC at the moment is being used for the equivalent of one day per week if you add up the hours of usage. That’s not a sensible use of the facility. Some groups who haven’t been able to use it because of the pandemic may never come back. Most complainants don’t use the facility, They are simply concerned about change.’
Cr Meehan concluded by saying, ‘We simply have to take this up. This would be great for our community.’
The motion to negotiate with Byron Studios for the use of the Alstonville facility was carried with six supporters and Crs Smith, Parry, Johnston and Willis voting against.
Cr Williams defends decision
On social media this morning, Cr Keith Williams explained his reasons for supporting the motion, saying the proposal could ‘bring money into our community at a time when it’s hard to come by.
‘Despite assertions elsewhere, this was never a done deal,’ he said. ‘I understand and share the anger at the process, at the lack of transparency and consultation.
‘In the end we agreed to a two year lease (not three), an increase in the rent to be paid and a clause to require the leasee to facilitate the hosting of major community events.’
Cr Williams said, ‘I remain angry at how it was done, but I won’t stop opportunities for work that are desperately needed in our community.’