Pressure mounts on old school site

By Jared Loughnan

Moira Shire Council has until April 17 to take advantage of a first right of refusal (FROR) and a significantly discounted purchase price to acquire the former Yarrawonga Primary School site on Piper Street.

The Department Victorian Education and Training confirmed the site was listed on FROR as of February 18 for 60 days and will conclude on April 17, 2020.

Moira Shire Council CEO Mark Henderson said council is aware a FROR has been issued by the Victorian Government for the parcel of land.

“We have had some preliminary discussions with Department of Treasury and Finance about the process and indicative valuations. Council will be considering its options in coming weeks,” Mr Henderson said.

The department’s Senior Manager of Property Victorian School Building Nicole Pope confirmed that Moira Shire Council, and other government agencies, can submit an expression of interest within this period, as per the Victorian Government Landholding Policy and Guidelines.  

“As you are aware, the site is with the Land and Property Group of the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF) for management of this process,” Ms Pope said.

“The abovementioned policy (which is a public document) provides that, if an expression of interest is received within the 60 days, the parties are required to negotiate in good faith for 30 days to attempt to agree on terms of sale.”  

Ms Pope said that this timeframe can be extended by agreement should negotiations be continuing in good faith beyond the 30 days.  DTF would manage such negotiations on behalf of the Minister for Education as landowner.

President of the Yarrawonga Community Action Group (YCAG) Jeanette Wilson urges Moira Shire Council to buy the site for community use at what is expected to be a heavily discounted rate.  

“This offer provides an exciting opportunity for the future of Yarrawonga,” Mrs Wilson said.

“The former Yarrawonga Primary School (YPS) site is a unique parcel of land close to both Lake Mulwala and Belmore Street, and the highest land in the Yarrawonga township. 

“Its acquisition would support council’s Yarrawonga Urban Design Framework intention that Belmore Street remains the centre of commercial activity.”

Mrs Wilson also said the site is of significant historical importance and has great potential as a major tourist attraction.  

“It includes the State Heritage Registered Courthouse, the old fire station, the 1880 brick school building, heritage listed memorial trees, a cairn dedicated to WW1 soldiers, as well as having been the site of the first Yarrawonga Post Office and Mechanics Institute.”

Mrs Wilson said believes community groups are keen to use the buildings:  

“The old courthouse could become an art gallery and/or be used for music recitals.

“Classrooms could be re-purposed as studios for visual artists and craftspeople, public interest and historical displays, and provide headquarters for currently homeless community groups such as Yarrawonga Urban Landcare and Yarrawonga Lionesses.

“The spacious grounds should be developed to provide an adventure playground, picnic facilities, gardens, green space and one day may be needed by the community garden.

“It is an ideal site for a new library that will be enhanced by green space and attractive grounds and can serve the people of Yarrawonga well into the future.”

The community action group have been a strong advocator having the new library located at the old school site rather than the Yarrawonga Town Hall Precinct as decided by council. 

Mrs Wilson said 89% of respondents to YCAG’s August 2019 survey voted that Moira Shire Council should acquire the school site for community use.

Moira Shire Council has expressed interest in the site at the reduced rate for community use but is concerned that following a lodgement by community members for the whole site to be added to the heritage listing may add another layer of uncertainty over the site.  The uncertainty of more restoration costs and what the true value is if the heritage nomination is to be successful will need to be factored in.