The 1,000-person convention centre at a Wagga Wagga gun club at the heart of corruption investigations is a major white elephant and not one of the “potential conference events” spruiked to get its $5.5 million grant have eventuated.
Investigations show that in its first two full years of operation – before COVID-19 struck – events at the facility were drastically below forecasts and the function centre is actually losing money, despite taxpayers funding almost the entire cost of building it.
Annual reports for the Australian Clay Target Association (ACTA) show that in 2019, the gun club received just $65,500 for hiring the venue – before taking out any costs – which was one-third of the $185,550 “accumulated depreciation” booked on the facility in the year.
The project was completed in March 2018, two full years before COVID-19 struck in early 2020.
In 2017, an arm of the NSW Government rejected ACTA’s bid for the $5.5 million after a department “cost-benefit analysis” found it didn’t stack up for taxpayers and fell “well shy” of required benefit for taxpayers.
The NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has heard then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian intervened and a second cost-benefit analysis was undertaken using more favourable forecasts for demand for the facility.
At the time, Berejiklian was in a secret relationship with former NSW MP for Wagga Wagga, the since disgraced Daryl Maguire, who had been heavily lobbying for the funding for several years.
After the project failed the cost-benefit analysis, ACTA and Wagga Wagga City Council came back with a ‘memorandum to their original business case’ and listed eight ‘potential events’ including the 2019 Country Womens' Association National Conference, ‘national functions’ for the Royal Australian Air Force, a conference of the Australian Local Government Women’s Association and annual conferences of Local Government NSW.
Not one of those events has occurred.
Many of those “potential conference events” have announced locations for 2022 – and some are holding them in 2021 – yet none of them have booked with the 1,000-person convention centre, which is on the outskirts of Wagga Wagga, about 250 kilometres west of Canberra.
ACTA did not respond to requests for comment.
The developer of the ACTA convention centre was Kerry Pascoe, who is a current Wagga Wagga councillor and previously spent eight years as Wagga Wagga Mayor.
Pascoe has repeatedly declined to comment.
The $5.5 million grant was awarded by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet – then NSW Treasurer – in August 2017.
Investigations show that at that time, and until at least 2019, ACTA had “no definitive forward planning documentation”.
Its membership was also stagnant or in decline.
Perrottet has repeatedly declined to provide an on-the-record response regarding his involvement in the grant, although his office has confirmed he signed off on the $5.5 million as NSW Treasurer.
In ACTA’s 2019 annual report, under the heading ‘ACTA Future’, National President Malcolm Dyson writes that Brisbane-based CPR Group had been appointed to conduct a ‘strategic planning process’.
‘Previously there has been no definitive forward planning documentation and this process aims to prepare a clear plan to provide direction... to ensure the long-term viability of the organisation.’
In the same report, Dyson writes:
‘Our association membership shows no “real” growth from year to year as we lose approximately the same number of members as we gain.’
ACTA has member gun club groups from across the country.
In 2017, the year the grant was made, ACTA membership ‘decreased from 14,359 to 14,126, down 233 members’.
‘Almost all this decline was in NSW with a fall of 220 members,’ wrote then ACTA President Robert Nugent.
By 2019, memberships had fallen again to 13,692 nationwide.
The ACTA convention centre is at the heart of ICAC investigation inquiries, which saw Berejiklian voluntarily resign from Parliament last month.
ICAC has heard the issuing of the grant involved interventions by Berejiklian and that it occurred in highly irregular circumstances and outside normal processes.
Yet no detailed evidence regarding how the convention centre has performed has been revealed until now.
The actual cost of the ACTA function centre is unclear.
In 2017, it was agreed the NSW Government would provide $5.5 million and ACTA would contribute $1.2 million with a total cost of $6.7 million.
The development application listed with Wagga Wagga City Council lists the project value as $5.5 million.
Yet ACTA’s audited accounts record the project “at cost” at $7.49 million, meaning $7.49 million went out the door in connection with the project.
Anthony Klan is an investigative journalist and editor of The Klaxon. You can follow him on Twitter @Anthony_Klan.
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