Inner West Independent

The story behind the Italian Forum Cultural Centre deadlock

The ongoing tension surrounding the sale of the Italian Forum Cultural Centre is just the latest installment in a long history of debate over the centre’s proper use and ownership.

In the story’s latest development, the Business Management Committee (BMC), which opposes Leichhardt Council’s proposal to sell the cultural centre to Italian language and community group Co.As.It, met with Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne for the first time last week.

This meeting resulted from repeated concerns expressed by the BMC and the Actors Centre Australia (ACA), current Forum tenants, that council was not engaging with their side of the discussion and was not being transparent in its decision making.

The most significant of these concerns surrounds Mayor Byrne’s assertion that Co.As.It is the only bidder to provide a business plan for the cultural centre.

“Co.As.It is also the only organisation to have submitted a business plan for future use of the site,” Mayor Byrne told City Hub.

The BMC requested to see this business plan following Tuesday’s meeting.

Sol Michael, BMC spokesperson, and Dean Carey, Creative Director of ACA, both said they do not feel this plan assuages their concerns about the viability of the sale to Co.As.It.

“The building simply won’t function under this Co.As.It business plan,” Mr Carey said.

This sparked concern among members of the BMC and ACA regarding the processes that had taken place during the sale negotiations. In a series of documents provided to City Hub, some of the details of this process were revealed.

Days before bidding closed for the sale of the cultural centre, Leichhardt Council imposed added conditions on a contract already submitted by Glorious Gospel Church (GGC) which included a bid for $2.6 million, a bid exceeding Co.As.It’s offer at that stage of the process and which has been raised by GGC since.

A source who preferred to remain nameless believes this to be evidence that council did not intend to consider purchasers other than Co.As.It for the sale.

“Leichhardt Council was never going to allow anyone to buy the property other than Co.As.It. This is simply not a transparent process and unfair to all – other than Co.As.It.”

Mayor Byrne told City Hub council’s determination for the centre to be sold to Co.As.It is based on its ability to fulfill a cultural covenant that was attached to a $3.5 million grant awarded for the operation of the cultural centre by the Rudd Government in November 2010. The covenant stipulates the centre must be used to provide cultural events for the community.

Mr Michael, however, believes Co.As.It cannot fulfill the conditions of the covenant.

“The covenant requires the premises be used for cultural events for the whole community, not just Italian cultural events. It also requires the forum to be available to the public, which will not happen under Co.As.It’s plan,” he said.

This debate over the interpretation of the covenant is based on conflicting ideas about Leichhardt’s current community.

Stakeholders opposed to the sale expressed concern that Leichhardt’s Italian community has moved away and the covenant now requires the centre to serve Leichhardt’s existing community.

“Suburbs change their characteristics over time. If you walk up Norton Street the Italian connected places have slowly dwindled and the main focus has changed,” said Stephen Hathway, director of the cultural centre’s administrators, SV Partners.

Mr Michael echoed this observation.

“I’ve had a business in the forum since 1999 and the amount of Italians living in the area has diminished dramatically,” he said.

This fundamental disagreement over how to best fulfill the federal government’s cultural covenant lies at the heart of the stagnated debate over the future of the Forum.

There have also been allegations made from both sides of the discussion regarding financial motives.

If the centre does not remain operational in line with the covenant, Leichhardt Council is liable to repay the federal grant at a rate specified in the original agreement. Currently, Leichhardt Council’s exposure to this repayment is approximately $2.2 million. Mr Michael told City Hub he feels this exposure could be influencing council’s insistence on securing a sale to Co.As.It.

Mayor Byrne said the BMC is resisting the Co.As.It sale in order to avoid repaying Forum levies.

“It is unsurprising that the building management committee which owes $300,000 in levies and is hoping to see its debt dissolve, opposes the sale to Co.As.It,” said Mayor Byrne.

Leichhardt Council gave SV Partners a deadline of June 2 to confirm a sale to Co.As.It and indicated if SV Partners do not meet this deadline, council would liquidate the property and assign a new administrating body.

SV Partners sought an injunction to stop council from doing so, which was granted by Supreme Court of NSW on June 2.

Last week council requested the injunction case be dismissed. This request was denied by the Supreme Court and the parties remain in a deadlock over the sale and the future of the Forum.

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