Local residents are likely to have seen some of the promotional media for the Anglesea Eden Project, a proposed $150m ‘experience centre’ on the old Alcoa site, drawing on a UK development of the same name. Assessing the value and potential impacts of this proposal has proven difficult for the Anglesea community. One thing is clear: the impact from such a project would reach way beyond the existing town.
There may soon come a time when communities along this section of the Great Ocean Road will need to be actively involved in shaping what develops beyond the current, rather sketchy, projection of an idea. When that time will come is unclear. In fact it is unclear just how serious a proposal this actually is. Which is not to say its ‘development’ should not be scrutinised carefully.
The Eden background in brief
The Eden Project ( <http://www.edenproject.com> ) in the UK dates back to the millennium year 2000. It transformed an old mine pit in Cornwall in the UK into a significant ecological education centre with multiple rainforest and Mediterranean greenhouse ‘biodomes’ and associated education facilities.
The UK Eden is one of a number of visionary millennium projects first funded from government investment and a government established lottery. It is an impressive and enduring success. From around £125 million capital investment, Eden employs some 400 people and has attracted more than 18 million visitors since 2001. It has contributed more than £1.7 billion to the local economy.
Eden’s success has led to many proposals to develop similar projects in other parts of the world. It is argued that the project offers more than a ‘template’ for the successful operation of biodome ecosystems; they
now have significant project management experience and scientific expertise in the development of ‘transformational ecology, community and education projects’. The idea of spreading this form of experience and learning centres beyond the UK is seductive.
The vision for an Anglesea Eden
The origin of the Anglesea–Alcoa–Eden connection isn’t clear; the idea of establishing this ‘Eden’ must surely have had a more substantive base than ‘here is another mine site that could be rehabilitated from a dark fossil fuel past to a green future’?
What is proposed is not a reproduction of the Cornwall site (huge glasshouses are not easy to operate in the ever hotter Anglesea summers). What is envisaged is an education centre focused on the intricate complexities and history of the Great Ocean Road (GOR). The site would have various areas of education about the GOR with different immersive experiences suited to the exploration of, for example, its geology, ecosystems, Aboriginal history, and so on. Visual mock-ups of such potential experiences in the transformed mine site have been widely reproduced in local and national media. The project is described as becoming a world-class eco- tourism facility on the GOR.
At the centre of this envisaged eco-tourism attraction is a new water body – a huge lake created by filling the mine void (which is many tens of metres below sea level at its base).
A website for the project has been established at www.edenprojectanglesea.com.au
There is an inspiring YouTube concept video at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYNr7CZQjzs&feat ure=youtube
Consultations with ‘the community’
The idea is promoted as having very strong support from the local community, the shire and the state.
The project team (Alcoa, Eden International and a PR consultancy) have conducted a range of consultations with citizens and affected parties.
A report on the ‘Community Engagement, Feedback and Response’ is publicly accessible on a dropbox
< https://www.dropbox.com/s/pxveafyqeah5aht/ eden%20project-anglesea%20concept_community%20 response_july%202019_web_final.pdf >.
That report presents the results of community drop-in events, stakeholder meetings, feedback forms received, and so on, reaching ‘600+’ people. The Wadawurrung Aboriginal Corporation, Surf Coast Shire and the G21 Geelong Region Alliance have all been consulted.
Critical questions for alert scrutineers (all GOR residents)
OK, so now to the question of what is actually going on behind this very speculative proposal – what could it mean, for Anglesea, for Aireys, for Torquay…for tourism on the GOR?
The estimated cost for this proposed development is widely stated as $150m; that has to be seen as
little more than a guesstimate – perhaps more what the project team think can be raised from potential investors. There is no detail about the planning and design that would be necessary to do a real costing. Whatever basis there is for that estimate was presumably used for the projected visitor numbers of 750,000 a year (sometimes inflated to ‘around a million’). These figures have been extended to more detailed estimates of peak visitation per day: 3000– 4000 people. As there is no idea of entry charges, etc., these are again very rubbery figures. Without knowing what rate of return their proposed ‘impact investors’ would expect, ticket prices, etc., can’t be estimated.
One way of understanding this project is to see it in the context of tourism along the GOR, which is already becoming a significant challenge. The pressure from the six million tourists per year travelling along the road has been receiving a lot of attention as the history of the GOR is celebrated. In particular there is growing concern over the increasing number of (mostly) foreign tourists bussing along the road. They spend very little along the way but rely on the provision of public facilities such as toilets. (This was much discussed at the AIDA forum on the GOR held early this year at the Fairhaven lifesaving club.)
One approach to tourism challenges such as these for the GOR is to create ‘attractors’ that seduce people to stop and contribute financially to local economies. However, that solution is not likely to have much impact on the behaviour of the bussed tourists, who are time constrained in travelling to their turn-around point at the Twelve(?) Apostles on low-cost totally pre- paid tours. When they stop at ‘attractors’ it is often just a toilet stop.
So, most of the estimated Eden visitors will presumably be day-trippers, school groups and a fraction of all those millions of other tourists who currently travel the road
It is not surprising that the main issue mentioned in the survey responses was ‘traffic, roads and access’. What is envisaged would represent a massive increase in local traffic around the Anglesea area. As with all tourism development scenarios, this local increase in visitor numbers is seen by some of the survey respondents as
a small cost when balanced against new local economic stimulus and on-going jobs. (That is the argument heavily promoted by Eden public relations.)
For a relatively small community there are important issues to weigh up; such a big tourist attraction would change the character of the town in complex ways.
Who should have a say in such a decision, based on what information? This is a critical question expressed repeatedly at community meetings with Alcoa and the shire. As the Anglesea–Eden ‘plans’ develop, this
is a question that has to be asked by residents and ratepayers well beyond the boundaries of Anglesea.
One aspect of Eden not discussed
Increased traffic has implications that go beyond congestion and road maintenance. This proposed development has to be viewed against the multiple challenges arising from climate change.
Many GOR residents are already extremely concerned about the risk of fire and the apparent lack of serious planning for traffic on the GOR on days of extreme fire danger. Anglesea and Aireys have additional climate- related challenges from rising sea levels and increased storm events that could intersect with road congestion and fire events. (That is the kind of extreme event that keeps insurance actuaries awake at night, comparing probabilities to the likely scale of the damage.)
With speculative proposals for future developments, questions such as fire and traffic control are often relegated to the future, to the ‘detailed design/ planning’ stage. However, many people who support the terminology of ‘emergency’ in discussing the implications of climate change do so because they see so much resistance to planning for a future that will deviate significantly from current conditions, for example in seasonal temperature and rainfall.
A development, such as Eden, will have an expected lifetime of fifty or more years.
Will there be an Eden on the coast?
According to the minutes of an Alcoa Community Consultative Meeting on 12 August this year: ‘David Harland was asked how long the Eden Project would persist with Anglesea as their preferred location before lack of government decision forced them to look for an alternative site. David responded, About six months”.’
Pressure indeed, but seemingly at odds with some other expressed project uncertainties. There is the critical question of finding and convincing investors. Another very large uncertainty is the filling of the lake. Research that we conducted at the University of Melbourne in 2014–15 (based on a prediction that Alcoa would close the mine) suggested that it would take 30–50 years for the void to fill from surface water.
The economics of the Eden project apparently only stack up if the lake is full within 5–7 years – the expected construction time for the project. It is currently around 7 per cent full. A rapid-fill scenario depends on the diversion of a waterway – Salt Creek – into the mine and (depending on climate and rainfall) the purchase of recycled and aquifer water. Purchasing water would be a huge capital cost which may or
may not have been factored into the $150m. The Salt Creek option is ‘currently being considered by DELWP to determine any potential downstream detrimental impacts that may result’; creating the lake is also a political problem, presumably one the government will have to tackle within six months.
In all of this planning and media spruiking, the underlying question that invites a sceptical attitude is the interests of Alcoa. It is certainly not clear whether they plan to contribute capital to the venture; they speak only of a ‘desire to leave a positive legacy to the community’. They are one of the owners of land on the site. A $150m investment on the old mine would certainly change the value of land on and around the area.
Should there be an Eden on the Coast?
This is a question to keep asking. If Eden International are looking elsewhere and if the tourism/economic value of such a project is accepted, then another, different, question arises: Wouldn’t the Eden venture be a better proposition for somewhere on the ‘inland’ side of the GOR where the issues of congestion and economic returns – and job creation – may look quite different? A high proportion of GOR travellers already use the inland route for the return trip to Melbourne. There is good argument for diverting much of the growth in Apostles’ tourism to that inland route to resolve the negative impacts of tourism along this nationally significant Australian visitor attraction.