Tonight, at the monthly Wallace Community Board meeting, a crowd of approximately 30-40 residents showed up to address the Board over the issue of the Otautau Town Hall. It has been a longstanding issue with deeply felt convictions on both sides.
Eight prominent citizens (including Tom Dahlenburg, pictured above) spoke against the Board's decision to sell/demolish the town hall; one person spoke in favour.
The first to speak was Peter Campbell (not pictured) who expressed the novel but plausible idea, using the figures stated in the Council's commissioned seismic report, that if he lived a life of 75 years, 6 to 7 times over, and spent all of his time, 24/7, in the town hall, he would have only one chance of being present in the event of the kind of earthquake that would cause the roof to collapse and the walls to give in. He said it is impossible to predicts acts of God and that a professional's 'theory' of what 'could' happen is having too much sway on the Board's decision to remove part of the infrastructure of the town. He also expressed a need for leadership and vision for the town - and that if other towns could be successful, so could we.
Peter Ayson (pictured left) spoke on behalf of the Otautau RSA. The RSA is one of two tenants in the town hall, and therefore has a vested interest in the future of the building. They organise Anzac Day which culminates at the town hall and is one of few longstanding community gatherings left in the town. Mr Ayson described how the RSA came to be involved with the town hall many decades ago and how opposed they were to being shifted out. He stated firmly that the RSA was not going anywhere and insisted that the Board renew their lease now.
Graham Barkman (not pictured) spoke on behalf of the Otautau Garden Club who have been in existence nearly 80 years and produce the incomparable, annual Flower Show at the hall. He stated that finding another suitable and affordable premises has been fruitless. He said that if the town hall goes, so will the flower show, and so may the Garden Club.
Raewyn Black spoke on behalf of the Western Southland Floral Art Club who are the other tenants in the town hall. She stated that not only do they have their own storage needs to provide for but also those of another (now defunct) arts group. She said there seemed to be no suitable premises in Otautau and that the group would have to consider moving out of the town altogether.
With every speaker, the mood felt a little more grim. The Board seemed unmoved, and even the chairperson at the end of the meeting said rather dispassionately that nothing had been presented that they hadn't already considered.
When everyone had had a chance to speak, the Board carried on with its usual business. Only a few residents got up and left. Most stayed to watch the proceedings of the meeting. It felt like a sit-in from the 1960s or the haka stand-off between the Welsh and the All-Blacks in 2008. The residents weren't budging and neither was the Board. But, in the end, it's the Board's decision, and they weren't going to change it.
I felt a gloomy disappointment at the prospect that this is indeed the end of the matter. I'm not sure what is more depressing - losing this great venue with all its untapped potential or having a community board that doesn't seem to tackle problems with any creativity, lateral thinking, vision for the future or reverence for the past.
But even with the unfortunate track record of losing the Holt Park Pavilion, the Post Office, the Railway Station, the Wallace County Council offices, and the old flour mill, it's still possible there might be a happy ending. We might get lucky - some rich person, some endowment fund, some lotto winner might come our way. At this point, Serendipity is the only hope.
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