Maribyrnong councillors end Melbourne Victory’s Footscray Park academy dream

Artist's impression of the Melbourne Victory Football Academy proposed for Footscray Park, rejected on Tuesday night.

By Benjamin Millar

Melbourne Victory’s dream to build a soccer academy in Footscray Park is over after Maribyrnong Council councillors voted to reject the controversial project – a decision the football club has described as “surprising”.

A packed public gallery at Tuesday night’s city development special committee meeting erupted in cheers when the proposal was voted down by councillors in a 5-2 decision.

The $18 million soccer academy mooted for the western edge of the park had been included in an updated draft master plan for Footscray Park before councillors responded to a public backlash by voting in August to establish a Community Advisory Panel to review the proposal.

The panel reported back to the council last Tuesday, unanimously rejecting the soccer academy, instead proposing that Council implement its existing 2011 Footscray Park Masterplan.

About 100 Save Footscray Park supporters rallied outside the council offices ahead of Tuesday night’s meeting.

Jim Lawrence, a vocal backer of the Melbourne Victory plan, spoke in favour of the proposal, blaming opposition on “soccer-phobia”.

“I will be the only here supporting the academy, everyone else has given up a long time ago,” he said.

“There was no representative for football on that panel at all. The process for electing the advisory committee was totally flawed… despite the fact I nominated I didn’t even vote, it was a waste of time. My shame about the whole situation is quite immense.”

Cr Martin Zakharov unsuccessfully moved to defer the vote, arguing the process had been “rushed”.

“I won’t go into great detail about the report from the committee, but I’ll have to say I found multiple errors in it,” he said.

“The process will be a lot more reasonable and considered if we take a week or two to look at these issues carefully.”

Mayor Sarah Carter moved the motion to reject the plan, arguing that while the aspiration had been to make the inner west the home for Melbourne Victory if the right location could be found, Footscray Park was not that location.

“I recognise the process could be done infinitely better and we’ve already begun an internal review into how we consult,” she said.

“It’s taken it’s toll on the community and I don’t like that it’s been so divisive. It’s taken its toll on the councillors.

“If we could have had everyone happy that’s what I would have loved to have seen, but it’s very clear that Footscray Park isn’t right.”

Cr Cuc Lam said many different views had been put forward and the decision was not easy, however needed to be made.

Cr Simon Crawford said council staff spent a lot of time looking at the proposal objectively and had not been bullied into recommending against the plan.

“When council looks at these sorts of proposals, we want a proposal that is embraced by the community and this has been very divisive,” he said.

Cr Mia McGregor said the thing that has astounded her about the whole process is how it has touched so many people’s hearts on all sides of the debate.

“It has been quite painful… people care deeply about sport, health, open space, the environment, equity in all its forms,” she said.

“It has made me feel good about democracy again – I have felt there has been allegations flying around from all parts about things being set up, horrible allegations of corruption and predetermination, but I’ve seen such a robust process at play.”

Cr Bridger-Darling, however, said she had found the entire process disheartening.

“I do feel bullied, I do feel that there has been bullying on either side. I feel that the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed four years ago in good faith has not been acted on in good faith.

“This is just flying in the face of good intentions, that we are just going to prioritise a dusty bowl.”

She said she was very concerned about “the people not represented” in the advisory group.

“I have heard that is through a series of fears about being trolled on line, about being doxxed, and I would like to see a lot more diversity in that community group.”

Cr Gina Huynh said her vote was guided by the community’s voice.

“I do encourage MV to continue discussing other locations with us, it’s such a great project.”

Angliss Reserve in Yarraville has been suggested as a potential site, however Melbourne Victory had been interested in Footscray Park largely due to its proximity to its close partner Victoria University.

Responding to questions from the public gallery, council chief executive Stephen Wall said the council does not anticipate Melbourne Victory taking legal action over the refusal.

“I can’t speak for Melbourne Victory, but I don’t believe there is a prospect of Melbourne Victory seeking compensation or initiating legal action, because all conversations have been prefaced on community consultation,” he said.

“At this stage we don’t have any legal action before us. This is speculation at this point… I really can’t answer that this evening.”

Mr Wall said the Council has spent between $50,000 and $100,000 to date on “due diligence” and other associated costs on assessing the proposal.

Councillors Megan Bridger-Darling and Martin Zakharov voted for the proposal, but it was rejected by councillors Sarah Carter, Cuc Lam, Mia McGregor, Simon Crawford and Gina Huynh.

Melbourne Victory released a statement calling the decision “both disappointing and surprising”.

The statement says the club has been working in partnership with the council for over four years on the project and that the Council “has contractually committed” to deliver the earmarked Footscray Park site for the project.

“Melbourne Victory is considering all of its options in light of Council’s decision,” the statement said.