Ballarat wanted an inner-city Games athletes’ village. The government chose an industrial site instead

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Regional groups have told a Senate inquiry they were ignored by the Victorian government as they sounded the alarm on decisions about facilities and housing for the Commonwealth Games.

The Committee for Ballarat on Tuesday said its requests to improve housing around the inner city fell on deaf ears as the state pushed ahead with plans for an athletes’ village in an industrial area instead.

The sale yards in Ballarat that were to be converted into accommodation for Commonwealth Games athletes before Victoria decided to no longer host the 2026 sporting event.Credit: Jason South

The Bendigo and District Table Tennis Association also said they were blindsided when Games competitions for the sport were announced for their city without consultation.

Speaking at a Senate inquiry into the cancellation of the 2026 event, Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton said he had been sceptical of the associated costs and the $2.6 billion price tag.

But he said there had also been frustrations that regional communities were not consulted properly, and that locals could have solved some of the government’s problems.

“The athletes’ village was a great example of that … we advocated strongly for an inner-city component,” Poulton said.

“The decision around the athletes’ village, to move to the sale yards, was not one supported by any developer or anyone with any understanding of the housing situation in Ballarat.

“That was of concern to us in the initial stages, and it was not consistent with the strategies that we had developed through the city over a number of years.”

Tenders to build the village Ballarat Sale Yards, a former industrial site, were advertised in June 2022 and required remediation of contaminated soil.

Poulton said another opportunity was lost when it became clear early on that no money was coming for major transport upgrades.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced the cancellation of the 2026 Games in July.Credit: Joe Armao

“We are a city of 120,000 people that services 160,000 from our hinterland [but] we have two railway stations,” he said.

“We saw a third railway station, with the potential for an event platform that could become a railway station in time, as critical infrastructure.

“We were left with no uncertain terms from the Office of the Commonwealth Games, and also from the Department of Transport from the very start, that was not something that they felt was ever going to be on the agenda.

“In a net-zero Games environment, the predominant form of transport was going to be buses.”

Poulton said they had concerns about repeating the experience of the 2018 Gold Coast Games, when attendees were left waiting for buses for hours.

He said the Games cancellation was a “kick in the guts” for those who had done a lot of work planning for upgrades and other key projects.

“We didn’t really see the Office of the Commonwealth Games that interested in working with local people to find what the local solutions were,” Poulton said.

“The lack of engagement in the planning process was a deep concern to us, and had been for some time.”

Bendigo and District Table Tennis Association president Gary Warnest also told the inquiry he had not seen any consultation at a local level.

He said he understood Geelong had made significant plans to host the sport, and had nominated Bendigo as a training facility because the city’s existing resources were not big enough for the Games event.

The next discussion he had on the topic was when he was invited to a photo opportunity to celebrate the news Bendigo would host Games table tennis events at the local showgrounds.

“I had to assure the Geelong committee that I had not sought to take the table tennis away,” Warnest said.

“I expressed my concerns that the pavilion would be built more for its suitability, or later use, rather than being fit for purpose as a table tennis competition venue.

“There was no background information that I’m aware of, to find out the suitability of Bendigo hosting it, or anything like that.”

Warnest said the saga was a missed opportunity.

“It is evident that there was little if any sport consultation or communication happening in the lead-up to the event, and that interest appears to be bottom-driven, rather than planned by the organisations charged with that responsibility,” he said.

When asked about Warnest’s comments, Premier Daniel Andrews said he didn’t think he had ever met anyone from the association and was not across the issue.

“I’m not here to have a debate with them,” he said.

Andrews said the legacy benefits of the Games projects that would still be built would be spread across regional Victoria, not just those cities that were expected to host.

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