A regional Victorian council fears the costs of maintaining one of its most prominent tourist attractions will become “untenable” if it is added to the state heritage register.
Heritage Victoria has recommended Swan Hill’s Pioneer Settlement be added to the state register
The attraction dates back to the 1960s but the council has planned to modernise the site
Opponents say council’s proposal would damage its heritage value
The Pioneer Settlement at Swan Hill, which began life as a folk museum in the 1960s, was the first museum village in Victoria.
But a recommendation it be added to the heritage register could clash with the Swan Hill Rural City Council’s plan to build a $10.9 million interpretive centre and tourist destination on the site.
Mayor Bill Moar said the council’s plan to combine the settlement with a new visitor information centre, Aboriginal cultural hub, and enlarged art gallery was intended to turn it from a money pit into a break-even concern.
He said the net cost of running the Pioneer Settlement and visitor services was $15 million over the past decade.
“[The costs] will be bigger if this heritage listing goes ahead as it sits.”
Fears for heritage
Opponents of the council’s development nominated the settlement for inclusion on the heritage register last August.
Heritage Victoria conducted an assessment, advising the independent decision-making Heritage Council that the site had state-level significance.
“It’s not until you read this that you realise how important this is not only to Swan Hill but to the whole country,” said retired councillor and former settlement board member David Quayle.
“One of the things the report says is the efforts to reconstruct missing buildings or other towns such as Walhalla or the Port of Echuca might be regarded as an extension of the idea that initiated in Swan Hill.
“And all these other museums that have sprung up have taken [on] the concept of what we did here.”
Mr Quayle said the council’s proposal would ruin the original walk-through design of the site and place a modern-looking building in a heritage-style village.
Site faces uncertain future
While Heritage Victoria’s report described the Pioneer Settlement as one of the state’s few successful heritage tourism attractions, it also noted visitation levels have dropped from 208,000 people in 1973 to just 82,000 visitors in 2018-19.
Cr Moar said tourism was “a cut-throat business” and the council’s target market was “not the visitor of 1963”.
He said a popular laser light show that had helped boost visitation to the settlement in recent years would never have been able to go ahead if it had been heritage listed.
“They don’t care if [artist] Robert Ingpen drew up [the site] and had a contribution, they don’t care.
“They want experiences. That’s what the future visitor wants.
“There’s so many elements to consider here and if this heritage listing curtails all of that, then the ratepayers of this municipality are the losers.”
Parties now have 60 days to make submissions for or against the site’s heritage listing, although a decision could take six months if the Heritage Council agrees to any request for a formal hearing.