THE state government has reiterated its commitment to building a $90-million 'GovHub' in Bendigo, with the plan seemingly unchanged by the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as the Bendigo council prepares to make a final vote on the proposal at Wednesday's council meeting.
The deal on the table calls for the council to sell the site of its Lyttleton Terrace offices to the state and enter into a long-term tenancy agreement.
The City of Greater Bendigo's offices would make up about 400 of the 1000 desks in the GovHub, should the council opt to proceed.
Workers from a number of state departments would occupy the other desks.
Elements of the proposal have divided public opinion, with members of the Bendigo Alliance convinced "Bendigo deserves better".
Others, like Don Erskine, believe building the GovHub as planned is "clearly the best economic outcome for Bendigo, at a time when we need it most."
The selected course of action was one of seven councillors were asked to consider.
Councillors are being asked to consider an initial 20-year lease agreement, with two options for further 10-year terms.
Asked whether its commitment and plans for the GovHub had been affected by the economic pressures associated with COVID-19 and the earlier bushfires, the state government said the project was progressing as scheduled.
"All pre-planning activities are on track ready for the project to begin mid-year," a spokesperson said.
Around 500 workers from the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions; Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning; and Department of Transport were expected to move into the GovHub mid-2022.
"The Victorian Government has also committed to another 100 new public sector jobs to be based at the GovHub," the spokesperson said.
"Fifty-five of these have already been allocated across the new Victorian Labour Hire Licensing Authority and Portable Long Service Authority, with the remaining 45 jobs to be announced at a later stage."
The City of Greater Bendigo's involvement in a GovHub stems from priorities identified in a 2013 independent review; particularly, consolidating the city's offices, and encouraging decentralisation of government services.
The city has cited the independent review process as one of its key consultations with residents relevant to the GovHub.
A lack of consultation is one of Bendigo Alliance convenor Max Turner's key criticisms of the project.
The alliance has called on councillors to vote to "avoid a GovHub train wreck".
"There has been no community consultation on the GovHub proposal as it stands," Mr Turner said.
He believed claims to the contrary to be 'misguided'.
Mr Turner was sceptical of the GovHub proposal's benefits, particularly concerning the loss of a city-owned asset. He also disputed the project's estimated cost to ratepayers.
"The council has in place no procedures to receive formal objections to the proposals," he said.
City of Greater Bendigo corporate performance director Andrew Cooney said no formal process for ratepayers to object to or make submissions on the sale of the land had been required, under section 191 of the Local Government Act 1989.
Asked whether there was any legal requirement for the city to conduct additional consultation specific to the GovHub proposal before the council, not just the concepts of consolidating the offices into a single building and co-locating, Mr Cooney said:
"The city is selling the land in accordance with Section 191 of the Local Government Act 1989, which allows for the direct sale of land between levels of government or to a public body, in this case Development Victoria, so is a valid legal process."
He said community awareness regarding office consolidation dated back to the findings of the 2013 Independent Review, which was informed by 120 interviews and 129 submissions.
"It recommended to plan and advocate for consolidating council offices," Mr Cooney said.
"An outcome of the Independent Review certainly outlined that it would be most efficient if city staff were in the same office. All recommendations were consulted on.
Mr Cooney said Regional Development Victoria and Development Victoria hosted consultation and feedback sessions last year, "following two Victorian Government budget allocations towards the project in 2017 and 2018 and council's in-principle decision in February 2019."
"A community survey asking residents to provide ideas on the design of the GovHub was open in July 2019 and a community engagement session in the Bendigo Town Hall on July 27, 2019, called for community input and feedback," he said.
"Throughout this time, 50 requests for information seeking clarity on the project have also been responded to by the city and councillors have also continued to attend listening posts, ward tours and other community engagement opportunities."
Mr Cooney said the council considered all the efficiencies identified through previous consultation for the independent review in its decision to become a tenant in the GovHub, as well as the benefits of co-location for the community and the project's benefits for the economy.
"When council resolved to become a tenant in Bendigo GovHub it also made an in-principle decision to sell the land for purposes of transparency and informing the community of the need to sell the land to enable the Victorian Government project to proceed," he said.
Bendigo resident Don Erskine said it was important the GovHub project went ahead as planned.
He said Bendigo couldn't afford the financial risk of a smaller project - or no project at all - and deemed opposition to the proposal "dangerous".
"If this project doesn't go ahead our reputation will be in tatters," Mr Erskine said.
"Investors will start to ask questions about whether Bendigo is a safe space to invest, projects will be put on hold and the city will go backwards."
He said the proposed course of action also involved less risk for the council, with the state government taking on all the construction risk and the sale of a parcel of land accounting for a fraction of the city's total asset base.
"If the council was to go it alone and borrow $40m immediately... that would have a ripple effect across the whole city," Mr Erskine said.
"Jobs and opportunity would be lost forever, with a huge debt remaining. Community projects would be put on hold for years and investment in jobs in our city would go elsewhere."
Wednesday's council meeting will be staged online from 6pm. To listen along, visit bendigo.vic.gov.au/councilmeeting or tune into Phoenix FM 106.7