Like me, I know many Freo folk near and far, not to mention Cockburn folk, and so many others here there and everywhere concerned with saving it, want to know just what is happening with the heritage-listed South Fremantle Power Station now Mr Kerry Stokes’ Australian Capital Equity has pulled the pin on acquiring and developing it.
I’ve written on the topic for some time now effectively begging the State Government to champion its restoration and integration into a new Cockburn coastal strip residential development along the lines suggested by earlier planning studies and planning instruments.
Most recently, we published a ‘Cabinet Submission’ by the ‘Honorary Minister for the South Fremantle Power Station’ proposing that the Premier, Mark McGowan consider the appointment of Housing and Lands Minister, John Carey – who already has the responsibility of restoring the old East Perth Power Station – as the champion for both power stations. Makes perfect sense.
But just what is the Government doing with the South Freo Power Station site right now, in the wake of the abandoned interest of ACE – Australian Capital Equity, Kerry Stokes’ private corporate vehicle – to buy the site? The answer, it seems, is nothing much, judging by the answers on that front provided by representatives of Synergy, the notional owner of the heritage site, given to the Estimates and Financial Operations Committee of the Legislative Council on 15 March just gone.
The Hon Dr Brad Pettitt MLC, former Mayor of Fremantle, asked the Synergy people to update the Committee on Synergy’s current intention with regard to the heritage protection and the restoration of the power station, ‘given the previous unassisted bid’ fell through; and ‘what will be the process for disposing of this asset?’
Mr David Fyfe the CEO of Synergy explained: ‘As you know, we put an expression of interest into the market. I think it is fair to say we were not overwhelmed with responses. We entered into an exclusive arrangement with ACE to try to move forward as their proposal was the most promising. After a lengthy period of time with them doing the due diligence, they decided it was uneconomical for them to continue and we parted ways.’
Mr Fyfe then continued: ‘It is fair to say that we continue to look at what we can potentially do with South Fremantle power station. It is a historic site in Western Australia. It has a lot of heritage issues that require a fair amount of investment up-front, which needs to be factored into it. At this stage, we welcome any other market participants who would be interested in working with us on it, but we have not got any immediate expression of interest going back out to market.’
Mr Johnathan Cowper, Synergy’s CFO added: ‘I am happy to talk to that sale process that David alluded to, but I think, looking from where we are now, we have been working with the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation on furthering some environmental studies on the site and that is with PFAS being one of the specific contaminants there. The site is deemed “remediated for restricted use” and we expect to retain that rating. We are in the process of getting a heritage conservation management strategy so that we can start to look at what can be done longer term with the site to maintain its condition.’
As to the future, Mr Cowper said Synergy was still ‘looking at exploring avenues of selling the asset. It is still an asset held for sale from an accounting point of view, and we have got some early stage leads in that respect.’
Neither Mr Fyfe nor Mr Cowper elaborated on what or who these ‘early stage leads’ were or might be.
Dr Pettitt also asked about the short public EOI process used previously. He observed that ‘from an outsider’s perspective, it would feel logical … that you may have had someone in mind at the time. But having a fuller kind of expression of interest process, I am wondering if that is planned for the near term?’
Mr Fyfe rejected the notion that it previously has ‘someone in mind’ when the previous EOI process was undertaken. He explained that ‘The short expression of interest was really that. It was not a full-blown tender response for that short—I think it was two weeks— period of time. It was really going to market and seeing who is interested and “What have you got to bring to us?” That is why it was a short period.’
Mr Cowper added that ‘The advice we received was quite simple. Clearly, with the nature of the site, it is only a professional developer who has got strong credentials in developing sites such as South Fremantle could or would be interested. The advice was quite clear that the two-week period that we had would be adequate because all they had to do was express an interest and demonstrate some of the track records from projects they had done in the past.’
Mr Cowper then disclosed that in fact 11 parties were taken through a due diligence process, including some east coast interest.
He then added, almost cryptically: ‘But, as I said, the nature of any former coal-fired power station has unique challenges.’
So, there you are. Nothing much happening. There’s vague talk about some ‘early stage leads’. Synergy remains keen to sell, in principle, but plainly isn’t overly optimistic that anything will happen any time soon. As Mr Cowper said, the South Freo Power Station, like the East Perth Power Station, has ‘unique challenges’.
As we’ve said before, it’s time for the State Government to be realistic. Mr Stokes’ people have had a close look and advised him to say ‘No’ to buying and redeveloping the South Fremantle Power Station site on the grounds of expense. And he is a local businessman who, it’s fair to say, has always had the interests of the State close to his heart. So it’s difficult to imagine any other White Knight suddenly appearing to save the Government’s bacon.
As the ‘Honorary Minister’ recently suggested in his ‘Cabinet Submission’, rather than have two different parts of the State Government dealing with two old heritage-listed power stations that need saving, let’s just have one champion. Mr Carey is the obvious choice, as, relevantly, he is both Housing and Lands Minister.
Another thing is also abundantly clear now after all the huffing and puffing over the two power stations, and that is that the State Government cannot count on any significant private equity investment in either project. The State is going to have to stump up the necessary funds to get the two sites fully ready for redevelopment, and should accept that most probably it will need to ask its DevelopmentWA arm to carry out the redevelopments.
It’s time for action, Premier, to either move now with positive action to save the South Fremantle Power Station, or knock it over. It’s time to flick the switch on the future of the South Fremantle Power Station. Sitting around wringing one’s hands is not an option. Nor is effectively doing nothing.
* By Michael Barker, Editor, Fremantle Shipping News
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