Trio bail out of mill tourism plan

A TRIO of local businessmen has given up on the restoration of the former Gunns timber mill.

The plan had been to restore the mill so that it could be a tourist attraction, displaying such attractions as restored mining equipment, while using the back of the 18.9 hectare site for their own industrial purposes.

The three businessmen involved in the project this week walked away from the project as it “got all too difficult”.

At one stage, when Collie Shire Council wanted to sell the town’s old steam locomotives, the businessmen also proposed storing them on the site.

They remain concerned about vandalism at the site, and the fact artefacts have been stripped away and taken for private use or sold.

Nick Smargiassi, of Collie Steel, one of the trio hoping to rejuvenate the site, was startled when offered mill machinery for scrap metal.

He bought it to preserve it but restoration is as far away as ever and now the machinery is deteriorating.

Terry Massara, of Coalcliff Plant Hire, and David Churches, of R32 Construction, are the other two businessmen who had intended putting in money to fence the site, employ a caretaker and restore buildings and equipment.

“There’s just too much red tape,” Mr Massara said this week. “Everything is getting stolen and going to rack and ruin.

“You just waste your time trying to do something but that’s what happens when too many bureaucrats are involved.”

The trio had formed an alliance with Collie Mining Heritage Group (CMHG) president Kevin Dyer to lobby various government authorities and the Collie Shire Council to get permission to occupy the site, restore it and use some of it for business.

The CMHG and the Collie Historical Advisory Committee, which was formed after the council proposed selling the locos, went to the Department of Environment and Conservation with their plan.

They were told the department wanted guarantees that huge sums would be spent on restoration, Mr Churches said.

The three businesses had the money and were prepared to do the restoration but they wanted permission to use the back of the site for their own purposes.

After Gunns closed the mill in 2007, their executives said the group could have everything on it, including a forklift, Mr Smargiassi said.

The following year they approached the South-West Development Commission. “Allan Cross (then the SWDC’s Collie representative) was very supportive,” Mr Churches said.

They were told their planned use for the site was in breach of the law.

But they believed a planned museum could only be viable if it had commercial interests alongside it.

Mr Churches pointed to the South Australian Pichi Richi Railway Preservation Society operations. It can only run its steam trains through Quorn (on the site of the old locomotive depot), the Pichi Richi Pass to Woolshed Flat and Port Augusta, because it is subsidised by businesses renting offices in its buildings.

The Hotham Valley Tourist Railway also operated only because of commercial involvement, he said.

DEC Wellington district manager Drew Griffiths said he had a plan for the Gunns Mill site and “communicated it to the shire”.

He had asked the State Heritage Office for a revised assessment of the site, which has been assessed as of “local historical interest” back in 2008.

“When I have the information back from the Heritage Council I will talk with the shire about what we need to do.

“We need to make the site safe, stable and non-contaminated and hope to respect its heritage.”

Whoever took over the site, it should be cleaned up by Gunns first.

What Mr Smargiassi, Mr Churches and Mr Massara wanted to do on the site “can’t be done legally”, Mr Griffiths said.

“There is no room to move unless the law changes.”

The department could put another lease in place but the activities had to be legal under the Conservation and Land Management Act.

Lessees’ activities must be compatible with conservation, recreation, sustainable timber production or water catchment protection.

“I have tried to get other industries to make use of the site but they are only small players,” Mr Griffiths said.