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Blues to Blueprint

A southern Western Australian project requiring the cooperation of the WA and Federal Governments, three shires and two regional development commissions is a daunting enough concept for most.

But success in bringing it all together within eight months would suggest something big is at stake, and soon. This is what the Shire of Ravensthorpe has achieved since shire president Rick Besso and chief executive officer Terry Dyer first realised the area had a major project on its hands, but no real understanding of the consequences.

Just one small shire in a large region with significant transport, power, water, salinity, erosion and social issues was looking at hosting a $950 million mining project, and the first thoughts of Councillor Besso and Mr Dyer were of inadequacy.

Both, however, possessed a strong sense of civic responsibility and plenty of awareness.

Ravensthorpe had a population of just 1,500 and, although originally a gold and copper town, had long since become a sheep and wheat service centre, with annual mining income at just $32,000 from a small gypsum industry.

The proposed BHP Billiton nickel project out of Ravensthorpe planned to employ up to 1,200 personnel during construction phase and retain a residential workforce of 300 for 20 years.

As a business catalyst, the benefits of the project are obvious, but ensuring sufficient infrastructure and community services, and maintaining growth and prosperity at the end of the project were challenges the Ravensthorpe Shire Council felt inadequate to meet.

It began looking at the experiences of other rural communities to learn how to best cope with such monumental change. Engaging the neighbouring shires of Esperance and Jerramungup, the Great Southern and Goldfields Esperance Development Commissions and the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the RSC developed its plan.

Talks with BHP Billiton, a trip to Port Hedland to learn from the town’s experience in the BHP industry build-up, and a look at Boddington’s plight, has led to an intensive planning venture, the Ravensthorpe/ Esperance Blueprint for the Future project, launched in Perth on Monday.

By August, the project hopes to present a blueprint plan identifying priority needs and from which key stakeholders, the community and new investors can plan for the long-term economic, environmental and social demands of the Ravensthorpe nickel project and any other significant regional developments.

The RSC has appointed SMEC Australia to conduct the corporate and strategic review, which will include a review of studies of the South Coast region covered by the three shires, a look at future local government structure and management, town planning and urban design issues, business development opportunities such as tourism and aquaculture and infrastructure needs.

It is in the area of infrastructure that the State and Federal Governments are most implicated in future development plans.

Local and State Government foresight has already been praised – for the region’s $54 million Esperance port upgrade to a much more extensive and efficient handling facility, capable of handling Cape-class vessels, and an Esperance Shire study of a proposed industrial park north of the town.

But contention already surrounds some issues, with current and planned transport routes through the region and to the port under fire from local residents and the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, solutions to long-standing regional water and power supply problems still under State Government investigation, and ongoing dissatisfaction at delays in gaining Government approvals for new developments.

The Government has been unable to finalise a power purchase agreement contract between Western Power and Burns and Roe Worley, which would allow for increased and lower cost power to Esperance industry, including the port, and could extend to Ravensthorpe.

There is no reserve tenderer for this contract, originally heralded for last December, and now not possible before April, but it must be signed before construction of a new gas-fired power plant on Port Authority land at Esperance can commence.

The power plant proposal requires extension of the Goldfields Gas Transmission pipeline from Kambalda to Esperance, but existing and would-be pipeline owners and operators are debating the commercial viability of gas pipeline ownership within WA. Both Goldfields Gas Transmission and Epic Energy, owner of the Dampier to Bunbury Natural Gas Pipeline, have resorted to court action to protect their interests.

The Blueprint project is supported by $150,000 from the Federal Government, and a further $100,000 from the WA Department of Petroleum and Mineral Resources for the appointment of a development manager for the RSC.

Councillor Besso attributes the success in attracting such support to the “can-do” attitude of the shires, bi-partisanship and a willingness to present the region’s challenge to all stakeholders, together with a plan for tangible outcomes. Pulling 300 people to a Monday breakfast launch 540 kilometres north of the Shire confirmed this week just how much was at stake.

Property developers, energy groups, magnesium suppliers and engineering firms were there to hear of the project that could transform the region and to listen to Local, State and Federal Governments outline their plans and support.

Federal Minister for Regional Services Wilson Tuckey spoke of the potential for industry diversification and improved air services, while State Goldfields-Esperance Minister Nick Griffiths underscored the importance of the Blueprint project.

While the nickel project would attract people to the region, the Blueprint project would ensure the local shires could provide alternative opportunities for mine employees and hence maintain population levels in 20 years’ time, he said.

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