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Plans to turn ‘great whacking hole’ into an eco-tourism wonder

“I think it’s really important for human beings to realise that the damage they do, they can remediate. More than that they can make it beautiful and they can bring life back to it.”

Sir Smit is the co-founder of Eden Project International, a charity and social enterprise which aims to have eco-tourism projects on every continent and famously transformed a disused quarry in UK’s Cornwall into a field of plastic domes housing tropical rainforests.

The enormous geodesic domes of the Eden Project cover a former china clay pit in Cornwall, England.

The enormous geodesic domes of the Eden Project cover a former china clay pit in Cornwall, England.

The Anglesea site came to Sir Smit’s attention after he received 10 letters asking them to create a project there. Alcoa representatives then visited Eden in Britain about floating the idea.

“I think it’s a very big project to demonstrate that doing cool things that are sustainable is also commercially attractive thing,” he said.

Alcoa owns 143 hectares of land in Anglesea, but has already surrendered more than 6500 hectares to the Victorian government, and the Eden Project would cover about four hectares.

While Sir Smit says their team has a vision, with plans that include a lake with piers leading into the water and huge art installations, the community and Indigenous stakeholders would play a key part in moulding it.

Artist's impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

Artist’s impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

“At the moment it’s the ‘imagineering’ stage. What we don’t want to do is say, ‘hey guys we have these great ideas’. We have some major ideas we want to explore – we want to tease it out in conversation to see what they have too,” he said.

The Anglesea project would have a huge focus on natural and “primal elements”, due to such “open access to the sky, the ocean and the red earth”.

“When you start working in a mine you can build over and under – you can create a whole series of environments. It’s like a great scientific institution and a great gallery.”

In the UK, their Cornwall project has attracted more than 20 million visitors since it was built in 2001, but it’s this amount of visitors and traffic that is causing concern for some locals.

While Sir Smit says there has been no push back, there have been a number of concerns around traffic. He says curating exhibitions seasonally should rectify a traffic build-up.

“An enlightened government would see the enormous benefits of doing something like this – but also the intellectual pursuits of the region. If they can’t see that I’m not sure I’d want to work here,” he said.

The former Alcoa coal mine as it looks today.

The former Alcoa coal mine as it looks today.

Eden International will also work to help remediate the site, just as they created 90 tonnes of their own soil in Britain with “seven or eight different soil recipes”.

“Our site, just like here, was completely sterile. With a project like this – we are effectively trying to show that something that has been razed can be brought back to life.”

Once relevant planning an rezoning approvals have been met, it’s expected to be complete within 18 to 24 months and create 300 full-time jobs.

The project is expected to be funded through a mix of social investment and philanthropy with hope to gain government support.

Artist's impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

Artist’s impressions of proposed Eden Project development at the former Alcoa site in Anglesea.

“It’s an intensely optimistic thing to do and I think people need places of mystery, and by creating a cultural icon somewhere where things were desolate, it’s a bit like exorcising bad luck,” he said.

He said after Cornwall Eden Project was built, dozens of companies, galleries and hotels opened up.  “It was as though people started seeing the area as a place where good fortune can occur.”

Anglesea Bike Park chair Mike Bodsworth said it was a question of scale and scope.

He said people saw it as a great opportunity but were concerned about Anglesea “blowing out” with extra accommodation, hotels and businesses and “being powered by their desire for development”.

“Most people are mindful that it has to hit a sweet spot that aligns with community preferences and what people love about Anglesea, which is mainly that it’s unspoilt, ” he said.

Community consultations will be held at Anglesea Memorial Hall on May 27 and June 1, but people can also give feedback on their website.

Nicole Precel is a video journalist and reporter at The Age. She is also a documentary maker.

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