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A story about pork, gravy and Orange's $59.5 million sporting precinct

February 3, 2023

By Peter Holmes

Perhaps a little gun shy after watching the cost of the Orange Sporting Precinct blow out from $25 million to $35 million to we’re-not-quite-sure-anymore to $59.5 million, Orange City Council didn’t mess about when it put together a funding document for the state government last year, building in as much gravy as possible for contingencies.

The Orange News Examiner has reported at length about the funding shortfalls for the sporting precinct, which will include sporting fields, an athletics track and an 8,500-capacity stadium.

In 2019 then premier, Liberal Gladys Berejiklian, offered the people of Orange $25 million for a sporting precinct, on the proviso they kicked out giant killer Phil Donato (then with Shooters, Fishers & Farmers Party, now independent following a fallout with party leader Robert Borsak), and returned a National to the seat.

This move by Berejiklian was a disaster, as she was accused of political blackmail, and was soon forced to backpedal and promise the money whether or not Donato was defeated. Donato increased his majority.

As a contentious local development of state significance, Orange City Council engaged in a process of consultation and debate with the community. And then Covid hit, with its smashing of global supply chains, leading to significant increases in material costs.

All of a sudden the $25 million stadium and fields were going to cost $35 million, which left council $10 million short.

Then Labor won the 2022 federal election and canned the Coalition’s slippery regional grant schemes, meaning any chance at sucking $10 million from that mountain of largesse was gone.

Soon enough, word was spreading that even if OCC got another $10 million, it wouldn’t be enough. The whole project was starting to look a little shaky.

An expert report delivered to council late in 2022 had come up with a new figure. In one blow, the cost of the sporting precinct had risen from $35 million to $59.5 million, an eye-watering increase of 70 percent.

Given that it was unlikely that a state or federal Labor government would make up the gap from $25 million to $59.5 million, Orange City Council had two options: spend $34.5 million of its reserves, which was never going to happen, or somehow extract another huge chunk of money from the state government - the very same people who had already stumped up $25 million for no return.

Ah, state election time, where the smell of pork hangs heavy in the air.

A wonderful time in the power cycle for local councils and community groups to get involved in some serious grant-grabbing.

And right now, the state National Party is in full Santa Claus mode.

Reporters across the Central West have inboxes full of funding announcements from the likes of Paul Toole, Sam Farraway and Tony Mileto - $12.5 million for Orange roads, $2.8 million for Cabonne pools, $1 million for an oval in Forbes, $500,000 for Bogan Gate Tennis Club, $100,000 for Parkes to develop business cases for the Spicer Oval Caravan Park and Carrington Hotel. It's been going on for weeks.

As an independent, Donato can only look on helplessly, as he has no magic pot from which to grab fistfuls of enticement cash.

Still, it is what it is, and it’ll be another four years before the pork is carved and doled out, so you make the most when you can.

For Orange City Council, the $34.5 million is a huge relief.

It would be a stretch to say council’s reputation was at risk if the whole project had fallen into a steaming heap, but at the same time there wouldn’t have been a queue of councillors or staffers lining up to announce that, well, we would get our sporting fields, but no stadium.

“We can go all the way,” council CEO David Waddell told The Orange News Examiner. “Before we were worried we might only have enough money to build the athletics precinct.”

Such is the scale of the project that the NSW government wanted it to be managed by NSW Public Works.

Asked if the $59.5 million total cost was enough given the uncertainty in the world economy, Waddell said: “The cost estimate … includes enough contingencies, significant contingencies, to cover all eventualities, including [cost] escalations. We’re very confident this money will be enough to complete the project.”

Any leftover funding would ultimately be returned to the state coffers.

Waddell emphasised that the $34.5 million was not a promise but guaranteed funding.

"It is real money," he said. "We will sign a deal before [the government goes into] caretaker [mode] and the money will be in the account."

Civil works for the eight sporting fields at the site are due to start on Monday. Council is hopeful the fields will be operational by the last quarter of this year - council had originally hoped this would be mid-year. The $8.8 million contract was awarded to Symal Infrastructure Pty Ltd.

Architects have been appointed to design the rest of the project, which includes the athletics track precinct and the stadium. A tender process to build these two areas will follow in mid-2023.

There is no timeline for the completion of the whole project.

The Orange News Examiner has reported council believes it would cost about $400,000 a year to maintain the precinct, including $170,000 a year for chemicals and fertilisers.

Political observers are curious about the Liberal-National state government's decision to tip a total of nearly $60 million into one project in Orange, in two big chunks ahead of consecutive elections.

It suggests two things: one, they believe that the National Party candidate in Orange has a chance to make a serious - or even winning - dent in Donato's big buffer; or, two, they know it's all over in Orange and across the state, so they're throwing money about like there's no tomorrow.

The answer may lie in the odds. As of Friday afternoon, a major betting agency had Labor at $1.18 to form government after the March 25 election, while the Coalition were limping well behind at $4.75.

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