A senior NSW public servant has told an anti-corruption hearing that the $20 million recital hall complex for the Riverina Conservatorium of Music has been halted and the money returned to a regional fund.
Department of Regional NSW deputy secretary for public works advisory and regional development Chris Hanger appeared at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) on Thursday.
ICAC is investigating allegations that former NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had a conflict of interest in the awarding of millions of dollars of grants for Wagga while she was in a secret relationship with then Wagga MP Daryl Maguire.
Counsel assisting ICAC, Scott Robertson, asked Mr Hanger about the current status of one of those grants, a $20 million allocation to build a new recital hall and education complex at Simmons Street.
The $20 million was stage two of a project that earlier saw $10 million allocated to relocating the Riverina Conservatorium of Music from its headquarters at the old CSU campus.
"We have completed the strategic business case to investigate stage two. That business case has shown that the project is not economically or financially viable as it was originally announced in August 2018," Mr Hanger said.
"The 300-odd seat recital hall is not viable and in that context we have said that stage two cannot progress and we will look at other options in regard to performance spaces in Wagga."
NSW Arts Minister Don Harwin announced the $20 million funding during the 2018 byelection triggered by Mr Maguire's resignation following a separate ICAC hearing.
Mr Harwin's statement at the time said that the NSW government had "committed an additional $20 million for the construction of a purpose-built recital hall that will ensure Wagga becomes the Riverina's premiere entertainment destination".
"This new recital hall will build upon the previously announced refurbishment work that is providing the Riverina Conservatorium of Music with a new home and the teaching space, rehearsal rooms and video facilities required to help musicians soar," Mr Harwin said in 2018.
A spokesperson for the Department of Regional NSW said on Thursday that in August 2021 the NSW Government decided not to continue with a funding reservation for the Riverina Conservatorium of Music stage two project, following a review of its strategic business case.
"The Stage Two proposal included construction of a new recital hall with a 300 person capacity, an exhibition space capable of hosting large events and a new music education centre," the spokesperson said.
The review determined the recital hall could not be constructed for $20 million and the Riverina Conservatorium would not have the capacity to fund the ongoing operation and maintenance needs of the "stage two development.
"The NSW government will not proceed with the Riverina Conservatorium of Music stage two project and will investigate alternative options to consider how we can continue to support the arts in the Wagga and Riverina community."
At ICAC on Thursday, Mr Robertson asked Mr Hanger about the status of the $20 million allocation given his testimony that stage two of the Riverina Conservatorium of Music upgrade would not go ahead.
"That has been returned to the broader Regional Growth Fund envelope," Mr Hanger said, confirming it would be spent on other projects via the NSW government's $2 billion regional development program.
Independent Wagga MP Joe McGirr said he had been given a verbal briefing on the project but he still expected the government to fulfil its "promise" to build the recital hall once a suitable business case could be developed.
"I haven't received anything official from the government in writing. We have been briefed that the original business case and proposal didn't stack up," Dr McGirr said.
"We were also assured that the department and the conservatorium would work with the council to come up with a proposal that did meet the government's goals for the original project, and it's my expectation that's what they are working on at the moment; I'll be seeking assurance from the Premier that's the case.
"The original commitment from the government was dependent on the business case stacking up, and I emphasised that in Parliament."
Dr McGirr said he expected the government to find money from another program to fund a new proposal with similar outcomes for the conservatorium.
"If the government want to find the funds in another pot of money, so be it.
"But it's my expectation and the clearly the community's expectation that this was a promise from the government.
"If the original business case doesn't stack up, let's come up with a business case that does. I think the community views that as a promise and the government should be delivering on it."
In other news
The Riverina Conservatorium of Music and Minister for Regional NSW Paul Toole have been contacted for comment.
Wagga Labor councillor Dan Hayes said the community would be "bloody disappointed" by the decision.
"I share both the anger and disappointment of not only The Con users and the staff and the people involved but the community at large about this project being cancelled," he said.
"[The NSW government] turned up at the by-election promising everything; they lost and have spent the time since then breaking promises and protecting themselves.
"First they broke the hospital car parking spaces promise and now The Con. It's clear that everything ... Daryl [Maguire] touched is now tainted and every promise made by this government is up to be broken."
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