Money meant for old chalet eroded, a ‘breach of obligation’ by Parks Victoria

TIME TO ACT: Supporters of the Mount Buffalo Chalet's restoration have been shocked by revelations insurance money earmarked for the heritage-listed building was spent on various plans, project management services and nearly $10,000 on wages, food and accomodation costs. Picture: MARK JESSER
TIME TO ACT: Supporters of the Mount Buffalo Chalet's restoration have been shocked by revelations insurance money earmarked for the heritage-listed building was spent on various plans, project management services and nearly $10,000 on wages, food and accomodation costs. Picture: MARK JESSER

In 1934, at the height of Melbourne's centenary celebrations, a banner promoting Mount Buffalo hung prominently on the famous facade of the city’s Flinders Street Station.

The chalet at Buffalo’s peak, owned by the Victorian Railways, was seen as ‘the epitome of luxury’ and a sanctuary for Europeans displaced by World War II.

More than 100,000 still visit the ‘Grand Old Lady’ each year, and most ask why the chalet has been mothballed for 10 years, since a fire claimed a sister ski lodge on the mountain.

The answer, depends on who you ask.

Sean Hallam, who quit a community group for the chalet in 2015 amid proposals to remove 60 to 70 per cent of the building, believes governments have never intended to re-open it.

Melbourne's busiest intersection, the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street. In amongst the motor vehicles, trucks and trams are horse-drawn carts. Swanston Street crosses Princes Bridge to become St Kilda Road. In the middle distance is the Shrine of Remembrance. The banner on Buffalo reads "There's magic in the springtime air at Mt Buffalo National Park".
PICTURE: H. H. FISHWICK, Fairfax Photographic

Melbourne's busiest intersection, the corner of Flinders Street and Swanston Street. In amongst the motor vehicles, trucks and trams are horse-drawn carts. Swanston Street crosses Princes Bridge to become St Kilda Road. In the middle distance is the Shrine of Remembrance. The banner on Buffalo reads "There's magic in the springtime air at Mt Buffalo National Park". PICTURE: H. H. FISHWICK, Fairfax Photographic

“The chalet is probably Australia’s biggest example of demolition by neglect of a government-owned, heritage-listed building,” he said.

“The chalet really needed a large and proper restoration a decade or more ago and it was never done.

"I'm confident that once the majority of the chalet is demolished, Parks Victoria will never allow further substantial investment.

“What the public doesn’t know is that plans for the chalet were abandoned at one point.”

Mr Hallam learned this, through requesting a copy of an Ernst and Young report the former Liberal government commissioned to canvass chalet redevelopment options.

The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning denied access, but the Freedom of Information Commissioner overturned the ruling.

Replying to Mr Hallam, the commissioner stated during a phone call in October 2015, an agency officer said that ‘at one point, the agency abandoned its plans to redevelop the Mount Buffalo Chalet … however, the agency has re-commenced its plan to redevelop’. 

It’s not known how long the chalet’s future was off the table, but the public wasn’t told.

Hundreds of North East people have a personal connection to the chalet. Picture: MARK JESSER

Hundreds of North East people have a personal connection to the chalet. Picture: MARK JESSER

The Ernst and Young report proposed four options ranging from $7.8 million to $52.9 million, with the Liberal Napthine government selecting the cheapest, involving the demolition of poor quality and risky structures and restoring the core of the building to become a day visitor centre and cafe.

Heritage Victoria signed off on the works, but they did not come to fruition before the 2014 Victorian election which saw Labor elected.

In 2015, new environment minister Lisa Neville announced tenders to fix the 107-year-old building had come back “more than $3 million over budget”, and both the restoration and demolition was shelved.

Instead a community advisory group was established and the chalet was to be ‘secured’ through $2.8 million in re-stumping, and the replacement and restoration of weatherboards, wall and window frames.

But it wasn’t new funding.

Documents obtained by The Border Mail under freedom of information laws show Parks Victoria received a $7.2 million settlement from the Cresta Lodge fire. 

The ski lift at Cresta were the first in Australia, built by Buffalo Chalet engineer Gill Affleck with the assistance of Vic Railways Engineers in the Mount Buffalo Chalet workshop.

The ski lift at Cresta were the first in Australia, built by Buffalo Chalet engineer Gill Affleck with the assistance of Vic Railways Engineers in the Mount Buffalo Chalet workshop.

Since then, only half of that money has been spent on actual works to the building.

After fire clean-up, planning and essential chalet maintenance totalling $2.6 million, Parks Victoria spent a further $2 million between 2013 and November 2016.

In that time more than $400,000 was absorbed by ‘project management services' and nearly $10,000 on Parks Victoria food, accommodation and contractor wages.

A $20,000 contribution was made to a coffee van operating on the mountain in 2013, and the same year $2948 was spent on the ‘disposal of confidential documents’.

By November 2016, $2.5 million remained.

Parks Victoria has confirmed the most recent works were paid for out of insurance money.

The use of the settlement for operational costs was labelled by former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer as a “breach of obligation”.

“In the broad principle that insurance money was to be used as much as possible for replace and repair at the chalet,” he said.

Mr Fischer was part of the Mount Buffalo Community Enterprise, a partnership with North East business people including Browns Brothers winery group's John Brown.

In 2011, the Government rejected a $50 million plan developed by his group to redevelop the chalet as ‘the first major hotel/resort in Australia that can claim to be powered primarily from renewable energy sources’.

“As a bare minimum, we await a popular summer cafe booming in the old chalet building, as soon as possible,” Mr Fischer said.

“Unless real action to re-energise an operational function for the chalet is operating by Melbourne Cup day next year or earlier, we are going uphill.”

The Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group put a proposal to the government in February, outlining a cafe as a first priority and other tourism offerings such as a day spa and glamping.

Today, the government will announce $200,000 for a feasibility study to take those plans further.

The chalet in March, 2016, before the current works commenced. Picture: MARK JESSER

The chalet in March, 2016, before the current works commenced. Picture: MARK JESSER

Critics of the plans say the focus should be purely on the chalet’s restoration.

Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group member David Jacobson believes such an approach will never be successful.

“We have identified eight different funding sources because we understand the government on its own will never fund the chalet,” he said.

“What a lot of people still can’t grasp is for 100 years, before the chalet closed and in the 10 years since, until last year there was never a master plan drawn up for Mount Buffalo and the chalet together.

“They were always treated as separate entities, and everything was always decided from Melbourne.

“To maintain an old building, you have to operate it.”

Member for Ovens Valley Tim McCurdy, a long-time supporter of the chalet, agrees the chalet can’t be a stand-alone venture.

“If you make it a government problem, it will get demolished,” he said.

Former chalet workers inside the building in 2010

Former chalet workers inside the building in 2010

“I think Parks Victoria’s long-term plan has been to hope the problem goes away and the Mount Buffalo Chalet will just be demolished because it’s structurally insecure.

“The community group are lobbying for permission to get onto it themselves and get private money in to do it.”

Mr McCurdy conceded, ‘As long as the building’s not falling down in the meantime’.

“When I saw it 12 months ago, it was going downhill quickly, but it was recoverable and that is what the insurance money was meant to be used for, so that the building did stay suitable until a final decision was made by the government of the day.

“There has been an enormous waste of money in different planning mechanisms … if the government was going to ignore it at the end of the day.”

Years of snow and harsh winters have taken their toll on the building.

As early as 2002 a heritage assessment by Allom Lovell and Associates identified investigating and rectifying “the structural failure of the sub floor and dining room floor in the cafe” as urgent works to be undertaken.

A video recorded by Mr Hallam last year shows carpet within the building squelching underfoot.

In an email written to the Parks project manager that month, the Ovens Area Chief Ranger overseeing the chalet said actions were taken to stop water ingress that occurred when windows were removed for restoration.

He went on to add “In terms of priorities for the building I have some areas that are of far greater concern”, and that these areas were not related to the current project.

A Parks Victoria spokeswoman said the chalet was ‘currently 99 per cent water-tight, with two areas that did see some minor water ingress over the last winter’.

“As per last summer, we will be working to rectify this with the use of a protecting membrane in some cases,” she said.

“Parks Victoria is working hard to maintain the Mount Buffalo Chalet to the highest standards possible within the available resources.

“The building has had a lot of work recently, it is looking fantastic, is in great condition and we are continuing with our ongoing program of maintenance activities.”

The spokeswoman re-affirmed that Parks ‘is not planning to undertake demolition of the Mount Buffalo Chalet’.

But it’s a case of ‘too little, too late’, says Mr Hallam, a Balwyn piano teacher whose mind has not left the mountain since he spent a weekend away there.

“If Parks had painted that chalet even once in the 10 years since it’s been closed, it would be in much better condition,” he said.

“(These new plans) will again let Parks and the government off the hook as they will again be seen publicly as looking at new plans for the Chalet while in reality, the majority is going to be lost.

“For some reason, Australian governments do not seem to understand that we have to start saving some of our most precious heritage. 

“We shouldn’t have to travel to other countries to stay at amazing heritage buildings like the chalet.

“Given the critical state of the majority of the building, plans being pushed by the Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group for the mountain are largely irrelevant until the Chalet is appropriately restored and functioning.”

Grant Cohen, whose family restored the Block Arcade in Melbourne, agrees the government has not done enough for the historic chalet.

“I’m not sure why the Victorian government doesn’t put their hand in their pocket for even $20 million, to clean it up, and get it going again,” he said.

Sean says he will keep fighting for transparency around the chalet's state and future. Picture: MARK JESSER

Sean says he will keep fighting for transparency around the chalet's state and future. Picture: MARK JESSER

“Other countries that have places like this celebrate them to no end – El Tovar on the southern rim of the Grand Canyon is well received.

“Mount Buffalo is one of Australia’s greatest assets of that period … someone has to put their hand up and say ‘enough is enough’ … it has to be bipartisan.

“We were always at the chalet for Australia Day, and then we started to go up in the snow, but it wasn’t about skiing.

“It was about being with family and friends and enjoying the facilities only Mount Buffalo could offer, and still could offer, if someone was given a real tax incentive and a long-term lease to bring that history back.”

Correction: A previous version of this article started that Parks Victoria had denied Sean Hallam access to the Ernst and Young report, rather than the Department of Environment, Land Water and Planning

If you have information about the chalet, contact ellen.ebsary@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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