Final word brings end to $100m funds saga

Last Thursday, Minister for the Illawarra John Ajaka stood at the Innovation Campus and announced the 12 successful applicants for a share of the $100 million Illawarra infrastructure fund.

The announcement was the final stage in a chain of events that started more than 1½ years ago - on June 12, 2012.

That was when NSW Treasurer Mike Baird surprised the Illawarra by announcing that it wasn't just Port Botany that would be leased, but Port Kembla as well.

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Minister for the Illawarra John Ajaka.

"Today I can confirm we will extend that scoping study to include a long-term lease of Port Kembla as our advisors indicate that leasing this port could add substantial value to the Port Botany transaction," Mr Baird said in his speech on budget night.

"From the proceeds, we will invest up to $100 million in infrastructure in the Illawarra as determined by Infrastructure NSW."

That proposed $100 million gift to the region started the ball rolling, with people wondering what the money could be spent on.

Big projects like the Maldon-Dombarton rail line or the F6 extension were mentioned, as were far smaller projects like sculptures and even kerb and guttering.

It also started arguments - just a day or two after the announcement people were claiming $100 million wasn't enough and that the region should be getting the entire expected Port Kembla windfall of $500 million.

In October last year, the government muddied the waters of funding allocation by suddenly adding the value of the second stage of the Princes Highway upgrade south of Kiama and stating the region was actually getting $270 million.

From that point the government acted as if it had promised the region that amount all along, rather than the actual initial announcement of $100 million.

Regardless of the amount of money spent in the region, the government had to get that money first. That effectively happened on April 12, 2013, when the government leased the port to the NSW Ports Consortium for $760 million.

A day later another argument kicked off when the Illawarra Mercury reported that, despite the port lease going for $260 million more than predicted, Mr Baird wouldn't be boosting the promised $100 million infrastructure fund.

Mr Baird started another argument over money in the June 18, 2013 budget, when he announced the leasing of Newcastle's port.

In return, on budget night, he promised the Hunter would get $340 million.

Some saw it as the government offering a big sweetener to try to avoid a furore in Newcastle, similar to the one in the Illawarra after the Kembla lease announcement.

If that was the case, it just ended up creating even more anger in the Illawarra when people saw the government was promising Newcastle three times the amount of money this region would get.

While the government seemed intent on alienating the region, at the same time it finally outlined where the $100 million would be spent.

In calling for expressions of interest on June 3, the criteria for eligible projects were announced.

They included projects that improved roads, public transport, the "economic competitiveness of the state", hospitals and health facilities and workplaces for "front-line services" like teachers, nurses and law and justice officers.

Allowing Wingecarribee and Shoalhaven to apply for the money raised some hackles - and still does - because they weren't really part of the Illawarra.

However, the NSW government said it was operating by the same portfolio definition of the Illawarra as the previous Labor government.

Though, there does seem to be different definitions of the Illawarra within different portfolios - the Planning Department later released a discussion paper called The Illawarra over the next 20 Years.

It didn't include Wingecarribee or Shoalhaven.

Those who wanted a share of the $100 million had until July 12 to make an application - and 124 were received.

Embarrassingly, more than half were rejected at the first stage by Infrastructure NSW.

More than 70 of the applications failed at the first hurdle; some related to property the applicant didn't own, some missed the due date, others neglected to sign their application.

Of the 124, just 51 were considered viable by Infrastructure NSW, and Kiama MP Gareth Ward said just 22 of them were serious contenders.

Two of those projects missed out in the government's released shortlist of 20 projects.

The underwhelming nature of some of the inclusions - such as a car park in Nowra - suggested that the remainder of those 51 viable projects were even less convincing.

It also made one wonder how things could have been different if more people had remembered to sign their applications.

As expected, the short list raised a few eyebrows.

Would they really consider using the money to build a car park?

Why did one private company - Warrigal Care - end up with two shortlisted projects?

Why were Wingecarribee and Shoalhaven on the list?

Why was a plan to turn WIN Entertainment Centre into a convention centre left out?

After an extensive consultation process that included public forums in each of the five LGAs, two separate assessment panels of locals, more detailed applications from shortlisted projects and another going-over by Infrastructure NSW, Mr Ajaka came down to deliver an early Christmas present to some of the project proponents.

Of the 20 on the shortlist, 12 received funding, with just five getting the full amount they requested, according to the figures on the released shortlist document.

The breakdown of projects was interesting.

At least one project in each region received funding, and to the likely disgust of some, Wingecarribee and Shoalhaven were home to two projects each.

As a Liberal local member, Kiama's Gareth Ward had been made a spokesman of sorts for the application process.

That had led some to presume he'd ensure a lot of the funds went to his electorate - but they didn't.

Just one project in Kiama received funding - an aged-care centre at Kiama Hospital. And Kiama received the second-lowest allocation overall at $8 million; only the Shoalhaven's $2.48 million was lower.

The big regional winner was Wollongong, which won over $64.26 million - more than three times its nearest rival. It also had the two most expensive projects - $22.5 million for the Fowlers Road bridge and $14.46 million for the aged-care centre at Bulli Hospital.

Of the 12 projects, it is the Fowlers Road bridge that delivers the most bang for the bucks. It will provide a desperately needed alternate route into West Dapto, relieving the often-clogged Bong Bong Road.

That will also open the West Dapto area to developers - the area is expected to receive 17,000 new homes. That then has a flow-on effect for the region's builders, carpenters, electricians and other tradespeople.

The University of Wollongong's iAccelerate centre, which offers high-tech start-ups office space, mentoring, and assistance to find investors, will capitalise on the high number of Information and Communications Technology graduates here.

It should also help to keep them here, and start up local businesses.

Questions have been raised over one of Warrigal Care's shortlisted projects getting funding, but it is at least located in Shell Cove, which is expected to see a 161 per cent increase in its senior citizen population between 2011 and 2026. And it is claimed it will generate 128 jobs.

Two of the shortlisted projects had a lot of promise, but were not able to secure funding.

West Dapto, expected to fill with young families in the next 10 years, was unsuccessful in its attempts to gain $7.8 million for a sporting complex. Part of the reason for this may have been the federal government's failure to honour its Labor predecessor's election campaign funding offer of $7.4 million.

Stage two of the Wollongong State Emergency Service headquarters also missed out. They were asking for just $600,000 - the smallest amount of the shortlisted projects. With millions going here, there and everywhere, they might ask why just $600,000 couldn't have been found for them.

But broadly speaking, it's hard to begrudge the majority of the funded projects. So while the path may have been long and paved with controversy, the end has been reached.

Now all that remains is to see if, as Mr Ajaka said last week, these projects will "unlock the full potential of the Illawarra".

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