There is no doubt the National Folk Festival is a hit, with the thousands of visitors it brings to Canberra and the performers from across Australia and the world who lined up to hail the event over the Easter long weekend for its planning and organisation, sense of community and the spirit in which it took place.
The message was clear – this is a special event that deserves to be nurtured and preserved.
Integral to that success is Exhibition Park – a piece of public infrastructure that is also home to many other great community events during the year including the Royal Canberra Show, Summernats, the Farmers Market and many other trade and animal shows. This weekend, the Groovin’ the Moo music festival joins the list.
Its location on the Federal Highway at the northern gateway to the national capital is a mixed blessing because while it makes EPIC accessible, it also is in the path of the urban renewal juggernaut that is transforming the main artery into the city.
Already, consultants hired by the ACT Government are investigating the development possibilities for EPIC and surrounds as part of ‘preliminary studies’, a term often designed to calm any concerns and reassure the public that any change is a long way off.
It is no surprise that a Government reliant on property sales to fund the services that we all want in the ACT should decide to examine sites such as EPIC but the danger is that the potential sale windfall will overshadow its overall economic worth and value to the community, to which it belongs.
EPIC is an easy connect along the Federal Highway from Sydney and the Barton Highway from Melbourne, and only 15 minutes to town, with the opening of light rail only strengthening the location’s value to its users.
The Government would be hard-pressed to find and then build a site with similar advantages, nor arguably would it be prepared to fund such a project alone, begging the question of whether private involvement would be welcomed by the mostly community-based organisations who would be its main users.
While the Government has spent little in recent years on EPIC, its established streets and pavilions, public spaces and camping areas provide a base of infrastructure that should be upgraded and augmented to make it an even more attractive event space for Canberra.
Most agree the site is a little tired and in need of a spruce up, with the scope for sound-proofing, more greenery and new facilities, including a convention centre and some appropriate low-key accommodation, possibly funded by some limited development on unused land.
But the camping areas remain key to events continuing on a community and affordable basis, with many visitors, such as those to the Folk Festival, wanting to be as close as possible to the action in accommodation they can afford. These areas should also be improved.
Key EPIC users such as the Canberra Show and the Folk Festival, which have gone to great lengths to reinvigorate and grow their events, have already told the Government they want to stay right where they are and want to see some serious investment in the site.
Indeed the Folk Festival, blessed by mild late April weather, had to put up full house signs at several of its venues over the weekend, which passed without incident and lived up to its slogan of ‘Five Perfect Days’.
Casting shadows over EPIC’s future would undermine this success and threaten the viability of events like it that have serious economic benefits for the capital. And it’s not as if EPIC isn’t a commercial operation that earns consistent revenue for the Government.
But importantly what cannot be so easily quantified is the value to the community of a space like EPIC. The gateway into Canberra need not be only wall-to-wall apartments, and urban renewal need not be limited to such development, but incorporate a refreshed and expanded EPIC and its spaces into the fabric of the corridor.
After another successful National, the ACT community’s message to its Government should be clear – retain and enhance EPIC as the people’s place.