The captivating light shows on the Port Kembla Stack last month said it all. It was a display purposefully messaged to the people as an indication of the other side of an edifice with a chequered, controversial history.
And it is a history that, in this eleventh hour while authorities still deliberate the stack’s fate, will be relegated to boring text books unless we wake up and fight to preserve an important architectural link to our significant industrial past.
The stack was built and operated during the most dynamic chapter in Australia’s industrial development. Between 1960 and 1980 it established Port Kembla as a beacon for labour from around Australia and around the world, giving the region its rich cultural diversity.
The journey to preserve the stack has been a long one, beginning with meetings involving people like Joy Patek, who grew up where the Port Kembla police station now stands and who completed her schooling next to the smelter works of ERS (Electrolytic Refining and Smelter, the pioneer industrial giant that built the plant and the modern-day stack).
The first approach of this group was on heritage grounds and this led to the first real surprise: a reading of the Department of Planning and Infrastructure Major Project 191/2008 revealed there was no order to demolish the stack at all, simply permission. This meant that the whole process was based on commercial considerations alone. Basically, that the cost of the repair and maintenance exceeded the recognition of the Highly Significant Heritage Status as allocated in the same report by Dr Sue Rosen.
Articles in the Illawarra Mercury by Wal Pritchard and Geoff Borst, both of whom have had close links with Port Kembla, rejected the approach that ''because the stack had a history of pollution and grievance, it deserved to come down.”
Under this logic, Geoff reckons the Tower of London should have been torn down centuries ago.
Geoff’s vision is not simply to preserve the stack as a heritage item but to make it available to the public, indeed the world.
“When the World Fair of 1889 was over there were plans to pull down the Eiffel Tower. The argument of why keep it up was countered by the equally plausible argument why pull it down,” he says.
Geoff believes the same applies to the stack which has enormous potential to be as relevant in the future as it was in our past.
The Illawarra, by its topography, has many fine lookouts from Bald Hill through to the Illawarra Fly. The view from the stack, however, is available only to those who are up there or those who have wings.
The same topography where a narrow coastline runs between the mountains and the sea exists in a few places around Australia (such as Cairns) – but none of them have the stack.
For anyone out at sea off the Illawarra the great pleasantry is gazing at the mountains and being guided by the stack.
From the outset of this rescue mission, it was proposed that the stack would not run in competition with existing lookouts.
It could add another dimension to the treasured Leisure Coast and the call to become the city of innovation.
This is where innovation comes out of the laboratory and onto the streets.
For the stack to survive it has to pay for itself and Stack 360 Pty Ldt has a business plan for a viewing platform and adventure climbing, which in detail is too elaborate for this space but can withstand economic and commercial scrutiny.
Too often Port Kembla is left out of the tourism debate, ironic when you consider it has one of the best beaches in the Illawarra, jaw-dropping views from Hill 60 and extensive Koori, war and industrial history.
Bluntly put, in recent times it fails to get the attention it deserves. The tunnels at Hill 60, for example, are littered with rubbish, the heritage trail is shabby and a disused machine-gun near the Port Authority is buried beneath undergrowth.
It’s true that a resurgence is under way in Port Kembla’s business area but that has more to do with grass roots community and young entrepreneurs looking for an affordable start in life.
The port community is at a point where it is desperate for a signal from planning and government authorities that they are behind us.
Port wants to be part of and not an observer of the region’s big picture tourism.
Saving the Stack and supporting its preservation would be a good start.
Ian Fulford is Port Kembla Chamber of Commerce president and director of Stack 360 Pty Ltd, the company planning to buy the Stack and turn it into a premier tourist attraction.