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Community throws its support behind leasing South Melbourne Town Hall to music academy

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Brendan Rees

A proposal to make the South Melbourne Town Hall home to Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM) under a potentially 50-year lease has attracted huge support from the community.

The building could reclaim its position as a centre of music excellence after ANAM vacated the building in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, which also came at a time when the City of Port Phillip began a major restoration of the 140-year-old town hall after it was left in a state of disrepair.

The council and ANAM have since negotiated a proposal to enter into a long-term lease, which has been met with enthusiasm from residents and stakeholders, with a community survey showing 91 per cent of public submissions (487 respondents) being supportive.

ANAM has been a major tenant of the town hall since 1996 with other arts, cultural and community organisations having, until recent years, occupied other parts of the building.

In considering the community’s feedback, which was sought over a six-week period, councillors will vote at a meeting (expected to be held on March 15) to decide whether to enter a lease with ANAM.

ANAM’s general manager Nick Bailey said the strong appetite from the community for their lease to go ahead was “incredibly exciting”.

“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he said, if ANAM is given the green light from the council.

“It would bring about the transformation of the building into a cultural, education and community hub, with public performance spaces, meeting rooms and a café. There would be more community access and utilisation of this magnificent building than ever before,” he said.

Mr Bailey noted ANAM offered a “very unique model, that is centred in performance. It buzzes with the energy of a performing arts company and will bring this energy back to the town hall.”

 

We are actually structured more like a performing arts company than a training institution. This year our students will be giving more than 200 performances, and have a roster of guest artists almost every week to teach and play alongside the students.

 

ANAM is currently using Abbotsford Convent, which Mr Bailey said was a beautiful site but a newly refurbished town hall would offer “huge potential”, with more space to house a range of activities, including providing office accommodation to small cultural organisations and allow an ideal platform for students, mainly aged from 21 to 23, to further their careers.

Those who voted against the proposal spoke of their concern that the lease would create potential limitations on other community groups using the hall.

But a council meeting on March 1 heard the lease would “actively encourage” the hiring of the building at discounted rates, with more spaces in the building being available.  

Mr Bailey also said ANAM was committed to ensuring that the town hall remains accessible to all, and the new lease has measures to ensure wide community access embedded within it.

The town hall has been undergoing a major renewal after part of the ceiling collapsed in 2018. The building has been closed to allow the rectification works, which is expected to be completed this year. 

Mr Bailey said ANAM was in the middle of raising funds, but it had been a challenge to lock in donors without the security of a lease and in turn “certainty of the project going ahead”.

As part of a long-term partnership with the City of Port Phillip, ANAM would bring $50 million in government and philanthropic funding to the council’s $15 million investment to develop a new cultural and community destination venue.

 

 

ANAM’s project has funding from both the Commonwealth Government and Port Phillip Council, and was in talks with the state government and Melbourne’s philanthropic community regarding potential further investment.

Mr Bailey said the project would generate jobs, economic and local hospitality growth, retail and tourism, while revitalising an important historic building at little cost to ratepayers.

Under the proposal, the lease would not start until ANAM invested $20.5 million into the building, with the rent “linked to achieving specified performance targets – to support building safety and insurance, conservation and community access”.

The duration of the proposed lease is 35 years, with the option to increase it to 50 years if ANAM delivers invests a further $20 million. 

Port Phillip Mayor Heather Cunsolo, who addressed the council meeting in response to the public submissions being received, thanked the community for their feedback.

“Council officers are considering all responses and formulating a recommendation that is expected to be considered in the Council Chamber on 15 March,” she said.

 

South Melbourne Town Hall is a treasured landmark for our council and community, and we are looking forward to saying more about its future when a decision has been made.

 

Cr Cunsolo also noted some community members wanted the clock tower to still chime every hour if ANAM occupied the hall, “because it is such an important valuable point to them living in South Melbourne”, however she said, “I think the intent would be to keep that historic aspect to it”.

ANAM has said that the clock bell would continue to chime, as it has done on the hour, every hour since ANAM became a tenant in 1996. •

 

Caption: Australian National Academy of Music general manager Nick Bailey hopes their organisation can secure a lease at the South Melbourne town hall.

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