Ten thousand people have signed a petition calling on Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews to commit to the full restoration of the Mount Buffalo Chalet.
It comes as PricewaterhouseCoopers prepares to undertake a feasibility study into tourism concepts outlined by the Mount Buffalo Destination Advisory Group.
Included in the “Vision for Mount Buffalo” are proposals to repurpose 95 per cent of the heritage-listed building, construct a spa hotel and events venue behind the Chalet, develop an education centre at Cresta, and more.
Alpine Council chief executive Charlie Bird, who sits on the Mount Buffalo Activation Taskforce, said the document was prepared following several public forums, and at the last meeting 94 per cent of responders to a questionnaire were supportive of the proposal.
But petition organiser Sean Hallam said social media anecdotes show there is “little interest in the ‘Vision’ while the heritage-listed Chalet continues to perish”.
“The government continues to drip-feed hope that the Chalet will be saved, but the reality is that unless substantial funding is provided for appropriate restoration, the majority of this magnificent building will be demolished,” he said.
Ovens Valley MP Tim McCurdy said the Andrews government was not willing to invest in the Chalet.
He said former Environment Minister Lisa Neville was reluctant to spend decade-old insurance money on the building.
“She said when they came into government the insurance money wasn’t there, I asked where it had gone and she wouldn’t say,” he said.
The Border Mail revealed in December that only half of the $7.2 million Cresta insurance payout was spent on the actual building, with about $2 million remaining at the time Ms Neville gained oversight of the Chalet.
Mr McCurdy said he had always been concerned the money – earmarked for maintaining the Chalet – was not spent properly.
“It’s clear to me all of the building won’t survive another two or three winters – parts might,” he said.
“I’m concerned if this government remains in, the Chalet will fall into disrepair.
“I support the MBDAG, who are looking forward and appear to be the voice of the community, although I do get people saying ‘They don’t represent our views’.
“It’s very easy to stand back and throw stones about what another group are doing – that’s not helpful.
“I support private investors and whoever can spend the money on the building, and actually make it a business.
“It’s about keeping it at a point of repair so that an investor can take it to the next level.”
The 107-year-old building has suffered due to lack of maintenance, believes Beechworth’s Ian Redfern, who worked at the Chalet as a porter from 1975 to 1986.
“When I was there, a full-time painter was employed,” he said.
“When the temperature drops to a certain extent, the timber tends to contract in areas like the door frames, and significant contraction causes problems with timber shifting … a lack of heating is a big problem.”
Mr Redfern has obtained correspondence showing Heritage Victoria approved Parks Victoria’s request in 2016 to remove a structure called a ‘lean-to’ at the rear of the main Chalet building.
In the documents the structure was described as “deteriorating with weatherboards falling off and roof leaks at junction points”, posing a challenge to the $2.8 million external works project.
A Parks Victoria spokeswoman said the lean-to had “minimal heritage value” and its removal was assessed by an independent consultant and approved by Heritage Victoria, but in the end, Parks decided not to remove it.
“Parks Victoria is committed to maintaining the heritage values of the Chalet and its surrounds and will continue an annual maintenance program that seeks to prevent any deterioration in the structural fabric of the building,” she said.
“The $2.8 million restoration project is now complete and will preserve the front facade.”
Parks has previously admitted there was some damage to the Chalet from water ingress in the winter of 2016, but states the building is currently 99 per cent water tight.
Asked what other exemptions Parks Victoria had applied for to undertake the works, a Heritage Victoria spokesman said an exemption was issued for works including the replacement of the ballroom roof and removal of “deteriorated non-compliant fire escape stairs”.
Further, “approval was provided for the removal of a corrugated iron boiler room (c 1980s) to allow for re-cladding of a hallway roof”.
That original material had to be removed shows “government neglect”, Mr Redfern said.
“It’s always been so …my superviser (at the Chalet) told me that in the early 1960s, the carpenters couldn’t even get nails – if they saw a wooden fruit box, they’d pull it apart and straighten the nails – they were that starved of funding,” he said.
Further restoration of the Chalet will be dependent on the Mount Buffalo Business Case Activation project, and if money is put behind it.
The consultants have a $270,000 budget and any money leftover (the tender was $185,000 plus GST) will be used "to activate feasible concepts”, Mr Bird said.
He said PWC would complete their work this year.
What they propose will likely be criticised by the Victorian National Parks Association.
In the latest Park Watch, Phil Ingamells wrote the ‘Vision’s’ suggestion of excising land containing the Chalet from the national park so it could be leased like Alpine resorts, allowing investors to own their improvements, was a major concern.
“Handing over Mount Buffalo to the fantasies of private developers … should seriously concern all Victorians who value our remarkable natural heritage,” he wrote.
“The old Chalet would be refitted with luxury suites up front, and a hostel at the rear.
“Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the proposal is the ‘Mount Buffalo Gorge Skywalk’ … (it) would have a disastrous visual impact.”
Mr Ingamells told The Border Mail the VNPA supported the 2014 Napthine government’s proposal to restore the front part of the Chalet and to remove more recent wings, which had the approval of Heritage Victoria.
“Had that gone ahead, the most historic part of the Chalet would probably be fully restored now, and offering accomodation,” he said.
“We do not believe further commercial developments are necessary or appropriate for Mount Buffalo.
“We remain supportive of the 2014 proposal.”
But 10,000 signatures calling for the Chalet’s restoration indicate there would be backlash towards destroying any part of the building.
Wangaratta resident Richard Rhodes, who is among those pressuring the government to do more, said people want the Chalet reopened to house a cafe or day visitor centre, and disagree with Parks Victoria’s $1.5 million plans to improve the Gorge and set up a food offering.
Mr Rhodes estimates it would cost between $25 million and $50 million to restore the it properly, half of the $100 million the government is spending on restoring Flinders Street Station, which was built in the same year as the Chalet.
“People are gobsmacked by that amount of money, but it needs to be put in context with the fact the government has received $9.7 billion from the Port of Melbourne sale,” he said.
“I can’t understand why they’re spending millions of dollars on other projects around Victoria and they’re not doing something about the Chalet, which is the only one of its kind in Australia.”
The opposition was sent a serious of questions including how much a Guy government would spend on the Chalet; whether they would commit to its full restoration; to what extent private investors could be involved in its operation; and if plans by the previous Liberal government to demolish parts would be reinstated.
In response, Mr Wakeling said: “If any private parties come forward with plans that secure the future of the Chalet, I would be happy to consider those proposals,” he said.
The National Trust wants the building’s restoration to be an election issue.
Chief executive Simon Ambrose said the Andrews government “needs to show leadership and accountability, and commit to a holistic restoration program to secure a sustainable future for this important place”.
“This incremental and ad-hoc approach to the maintenance and management of the Chalet is unacceptable,” he said.
“With another winter season approaching, we are calling on the government to accept responsibility and provide the funding needed to restore the Chalet – just as they have for Flinders Street Station.”
- A government spokesman, who was approached for a response from Ms Neville, said “the government will preserve the Mt Buffalo Chalet and has already delivered vital repairs to ensure the building is water-tight and safe”.