The Canberra business community is deeply disappointed and perplexed by the ACT Government’s decision to further delay, u ntil after 2020, the development of a new convention centre for the Nation’s Capital.
As recently as 3 June 2014 the ACT Government committed $1.5 million to the next phase of the Australia Forum project to include the preparation of a detailed business case and a call for the Expressions of Interest for the ‘reference design’.An additional future provision of up to $8 million was also flagged to further progress work on the Australia Forum in the out years, when funding partners come on board.
At the time the Chief Minister said the Australia Forum had the potential to provide a truly world class convention facility that will allow the ACT grow its economy. Minister Barr said that the Australia Forum would allow us to attract more national and international business tourism to Canberra. This is just one of several key infrastructure projects that will transform our city in its second century.
In the light of these trends and the near unanimous support for a new convention centre from the private sector, the decision to delay investment in a new convention centre for a further 6-10 years is beyond comprehension.
Business organisations, universities, research and learning institutes, cultural institutions and industry in the ACT and surrounding region have been unified and consistent in their support for a new convention centre as the top infrastructure priority for the ACT.
The business community, including Canberra Business Council and the Canberra Convention Bureau, has continued to work closely with the ACT Government on this project throughout the last year. There have been extensive consultations and workshops with key project stakeholders to ensure that the project delivers the standard, function and capacity to make it a world-class convention facility.
The need for investment in tourism infrastructure like the convention centre has been recently highlighted by the massive slump in the amount of time people are staying in Canberra for business as reported in the recent National Visitors Survey for the year ending June 2014. This survey showed that, while the total number of domestic visitors to the ACT is largely unchanged from a year ago, travellers are spending less and staying fewer nights overall. Figures from Tourism Research Australia showed that international visitor nights were down 12 per cent and trip expenditure dropped 6 per cent for the year to June 2014. In addition, the Australian Hotels Association is tracking occupancy levels at around 65 per cent for Canberra hotels, which is well down on previous years.
There is no doubt that the Federal Government’s cutbacks on travel and the end of the multi- million dollar budget to promote the Centenary of Canberra are having an impact on local tourism. The real issue however is that, without serious investment, the local business tourism industry is likely to continue to struggle, as other cities build new or upgrade their current facilities.
While at first glance it is encouraging that the ACT Government has committed to meeting its commitment under the Labor Party-Greens Parliamentary Agreement to have the Australia Forum investment ready by the end of this financial year, the fact is that all of the money being spent now to refine the business case and progress the ‘reference design’ will be wasted if the convention centre is not going to be built until after 2020. The design of convention centres around the world -everything from technology to functionality – is changing so rapidly that anything designed now will have to be re-designed and the business case re-done in five years time. In addition the private sector will be reluctant to invest in designing a project now that will not be built for another six years or more.
In the light of these trends and the near unanimous support for a new convention centre from the private sector, the decision to delay investment in a new convention centre for a further 6-10 years is beyond comprehension. Particularly as it comes on top of the previous 7-10 years of procrastination.