Notes from the Coolum wavepool community meeting
Well, there we were, crammed into a broom closet at the far end of the Coolum Surf Club, a presentation screen at one end, a spread of pizza slices and various delights at the other.
Not quite what I was expecting for the first community consultation of the WSL Wave Company’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Sunshine Coast, but on the other hand, maybe the perfect place to preach to the choir. Warm, cozy, intimate access to the choirmaster, one Andrew Stark.
To say it was a soft start to the WSL campaign is to under-estimate Starky’s considerable ability to stage-manage public perceptions while playing hard-ball in the conference room. Not known for taking a backward step in the surf or in the boardroom, the former CEO of Surfing Queensland and Surfing Australia has developed a deserved reputation for getting the big things done, while seemingly exercising controlled restraint at all times. Those who have worked closely with him will testify that at times, away from the public view, there is more control than restraint in play, but few will argue that Starky is a smart operator who gets shit done.
Part of that process was to get the local surfing community on side, despite some fairly vicious threads on this and other surf sites following the media announcement of the $100 million project on former cane-fields just outside town. But we were the low-hanging fruit compared with the environmental and community groups Starky was to face off with in the coming days. Who knew how many endangered ground parrots were to be revealed in the acid swamps of the 500 hectares at the roundabout? “I’m gonna have a grovel at Tea Tree at dawn, to get my head in the right space,” Starky whispered as he moved to start proceedings. “You in?”
I missed sunrise by an hour or so, but I’m sure Andrew was there, navigating the ankle-snappers on his McTavish nine-six, a recent acquisition, presumably in consideration of the long spring he’s going to be spending on the surf-starved Sunny Coast.
Not surprisingly, the main things the local surf community representatives wanted to know was how much was it going to cost per wave and could they have a few free ones, like once a week? Starky offered little in the way of detail on the business model, but pointed out that Coolum would be a mixed-use facility, as opposed to Lemoore’s R & D and corporate junket model. (And Starky knows quite a bit about that, having led the somewhat controversial and expensive week-long training camp at Lemoore for the Australian Olympic “shadow team” last year, just before leaving Surfing Australia to join the Ziff team.)
He also argued that the Wave Ranch at Lemoore had in fact become a model of community engagement, as well as its elite and fat cat functions. At which juncture I pointed out that no one surfs in Lemoore – I know, I’ve prowled those mean streets looking for roof racks or bean-pickers in boardies – while there are almost 350,000 people on the Sunshine Coast and 90 percent of them surf. (Or so it seems every swell event.) That’s a lot of freebies or cheapies for the business model to handle.
Starky kept smiling. Julian Wilson’s mum Nola, still zinging from a one-on-one Kool-Aid session with Andrew earlier in the afternoon, lightened the mood with the observation that “Surf Ranch” was too American, that it would have to be a “Surf Farm”. This was pretty much in line with the consensus view that Andrew Stark was not there to fly kites, that the Coolum surf farm was as good as in the bank. And it’s true that the proposal has the land, the finance and the partnerships ready to roll out as early as 2021, which puts it in a different league to most wave pool props, but it still has to get Queensland Government approval, with an election on the horizon. And that means a lot more meetings, in bigger rooms than the surf club bunker, with righteous indignation thick in the air.
But if anyone can pull it off, it’s Andrew Stark.
And a footnote: Just about the first call Starky made when he became GM for WSL Asia Pacific was to old crony and former SA board member Don O’Rorke, of Consolidated Properties, who then called his old surfing mate Scott Hutchinson of Hutchinson Builders. This is the team that brought us Surfing Australia’s High Performance Centre on the Tweed Coast. This is now the team behind Surf Ranch Coolum.
// PHIL JARRATT