Stark's pitch: trust us, we're the WSL, would we/could we do wrong? May need some refinement.
Roman Polanki’s 1974 film noir classic Chinatown deals with corruption over access to water in early 20th century Los Angeles. Basically, the story of the subjugation of public good by private greed.
It’s been on my mind a lot lately, since 2013 actually, when Kelly Slater soft-launched his tub as part of a $A1.5 billion development proposal called Maddison Estate in Pimpama, “the last remaining rural town on the Pacific Motorway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.” The property developer behind that development was the Gold Coast entrepreneur Peter Drake.
Maddison Estate had a stall at the then Quiksilver Pro, in those heady last days of the ASP. Glossy brochures, babes and studs standing around in the Queensland sun pitching the project, almost three years before the wavepool reveal that shocked the surfing world.
“Maddison Estate is an exclusive community, however, the general public will be able to access the wave experience,” Kelly Slater Wave Co. GM Noah Grimmett told ESPN.com in 2012.
But, the project, which was going to take seven years to build, never got up.
In 2015, Drake became the third biggest bankrupt in Australian history with debts of $337 million. He reported personal assets of “a block of land worth $500, two second-hand cars and a little over $1,000 in the bank.”
A little background about the sunshine state.
Queenslanders love property development.
From time to time the state is disfigured by paroxysms of development. The Gold Coast, canal estates, high-rises, etc etc. Bulldozers are like crack cocaine to a certain type of human animal. The state even has its own mythological developers who exerted an outsize influence on the political process, the so-called white-shoe brigade.
The developer behind Coolum Surf Ranch, Don O’Rorke is as good as they get. A very fine, sharp stud, known by his peers as the “baby-faced assassin.” Don loves his go-outs, gets a yearly trip to the Ments on his pal Brian White’s boat, the Indies Trader 3 and is famously known for his aversion to litigation.
An AFR profile in August describes a framed cheque on his desk that reads, “$600,000 dispute, $5 million in legal fees, $200,000 settlement.” According to Don, “It reminds everyone of two things; one, the futility of litigation and two, don’t fuck with us because we will go the distance.”
Don’s one of us, except with vastly deeper pocket. He donated the land and a half-a-million dollars for the Hurley HPC and was subsequently made a life member of Surfing Australia. The organisation that Andrew Stark led for close enough to a decade and left to join the WSL, with close to a singular mission: get the first Kelly Slater tub launched in Australia.
Property developers, you won’t be surprised to hear, are the largest political donors in Queensland, or at least they were.
Don’s Consolidated Properties (CPG) was no slouch in that regard, barely missing a podium finish, with the fourth largest developer contributions. The last developer to make a donation to the Australian Labor Party (which holds power in Queensland) on the day the Premier banned them in Oct, 2017?
Don’s CTP. He got in a $33,500 donation that day, following on from a $16,000 donation a few weeks before.
Perspectives on property developers giving money to politicians are very much in the eye of the beholder. For developers like Don, it’s all about good government relations.
Others see undue influence. Less charitable views exist, like that of the Crime and Corruption Commission who found a “risk, or perceived risk, of corruption at the local government level arising from political donations from property developers.”
Don’s big break was a Casuarina, a long stretch of coastal land, where according to renowned surf journalist Nick Carroll, he “saw a future where others saw bugger all.”
People did see other things, though.
They saw bush and tried to preserve it. The process was not quite as squeaky clean and praiseworthy as Carroll paints it. In May 2005, the Tweed Shire Council, which hosts Casuarina, was sacked after an independent report found it had been the puppet of developers. Pro-development councillors were funded by a lobby group called Tweed Directions and Emeritus Prof Maurice Daly said councillors whose candidacies were funded by Tweed Directions no longer had the public’s confidence and were not able to carry out the council’s functions.
Don O’Rorke, who was building Casuarina at the time, donated $50000 to Tweed Directions. All perfectly legal and there is no suggestion otherwise.
A good pal to Andrew Stark, as is now widely known. Starky is an ex ad-man.
An ad man and property developer walk into a bar and say, “Have I got a deal for you.”
Which is pretty much what happened at Coolum in their “community consultation.” A later radio interview mentioned one-on-one meetings with environment groups who thought building a huge urban development on a floodplain was a spectacularly bad idea.
The radio interview gave the impression the groups concerns had been allayed.
I foot-slogged it through Nambour, the old faded cane town half-an-hour inland from Coolum, looking for the Sunshine Coast Environment Centre. A low-set building nestled in a back alley, around the corner from a community building where an outdoor soup kitchen was set-up, a dozen hard scrabble crew leaning against a wall smoking cigarettes.
“They’re good at building on floodplain,” said the Chris Cooper look-alike before assuring me that none of the groups who had done the one on one consultations were swallowing the Kool-Aid.
I have an XDI* report about climate risk in front of me.
Should we talk about climate risk? Boo, hiss!
We already know what they will say: increased impacts expected from sea-level rise, storm surge and flooding on the short, coastal Maroochy catchment. Bigger floods, greater inundation, higher insurance costs, evacuation plans for residents. Nuts. Gimme my man-made floodplain toobs and eco-lodge.
Have you heard about Blue Heart, the latest WSL Pure campaign? It aims to build blue carbon, the sexiest form of carbon, by sequestering it in coastal wetlands.
I kid, Blue Heart is a Sunshine coast directive aimed at blue carbon in the Maroochy wetlands. It’s under direct threat, of course, by the Coolum Surf Ranch proposal. Reece Pacheco, head of WSL Pure, has been contacted for comment. Crickets at time of publication.
I have a local property developer pal too.
“It’s fucking swamp,” he said about the proposed site. “They’ll have to build canals and lakes, as well as the wavepool just to elevate the building sites.”
The chief engineer, Dr Trev Johnson, is a specialist in, wait for it… engineering canals.
Where is the water coming from? asked Genevieve in instalment one.
Mr O’Rorke stated it would not be taken from reticulated town water but, extracted from the nearby Maroochy River, its associated waterways and interconnected ground water via a complex (and unsustainable) pumping system into the pool then circulated onto constructed wetlands and a series of ‘lakes’ – presumably for the upmarket ‘lakefront’ housing lots.
This risky and energy intensive process could severely impact on the hydrology of the river and its protected wetlands.
Coolum Creek Conservation Park and the regenerating Yandina Creek Wetlands are within proximity to this site. The mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of acid sulfate soils to “create” an aspirational “developable” area of some 125 hectares (308 acres) compounds the unacceptable risk from this project.
That’s the presser from the Sunny Coast Environment Council, btw, after the one-on-one with Don and Starky.
Stark’s pitch: trust us, we’re the WSL, would we/could we do wrong? May need some refinement.
2032 Olympic venue? Rejected by Tokyo and Paris, the universe where the wavepool is the accepted venue is becoming an increasingly parallel one. A spokesperson from Tourism Minister Kate Jones office said it was way too early to have discussions about potential Olympic venues but that Queensland Tourism remained committed to promoting Queensland’s natural assets.
Sounds like a yeah, but nah, to me: we got miles of beaches and we want to promote them.
Nick Carroll asked us to sympathise with Starky’s plight, forced to pitch a very difficult proposal after the Florida Palm Beach debacle. I do feel a little sorry for them that they are not pitching this in the age of the old print mags, where sympathetic coverage by the old-boy network, if not outright advocacy, could be assured.
We don’t even need to speculate on that.
A piece in this month’s Tracks by veteran surf journalist Phil Jarratt handled Stark with the gentlest of velvet gloves. His relationship with Don O’Rorke got one sentence in one paragraph. The timeline of being tapped on the shoulder by the WSL to deliver on the pool while his pal needed some sizzle to sell a piece of very soggy steak where both partners could turn floodplain into billions of dollars was not discussed.
Where’s it at?
There’s no record of any proposal with council, so they are being truthful, which means the development is grinding through (what I am assured is a very thorough process) in the Queensland State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA). Until, and if or when the WSL/CPG release a Draft Masterplan and start telling local residents and surfers what’s really up and how much it will cost them to get their floodplain toobs the whole process is nothing more than a sales pitch that is haemorrhaging trust.
It’s probable we will never get the exact timeline, and who approached who.
Carroll calls the arrangement between Stark, the WSL guy and O’Rorke a “beautiful confluence of interests.”
Very much murky waters ahead comrades.
But, I doubt we will walk away, like Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes was advised to in the closing scene of Chinatown with the immortal words: “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”.
Next: The case for!
*XDI=Cross Dependency Initiative.