The previously announced natural history museum slated for Gulgong will not go ahead after a core contributor to the project withdrew support forcing council to hand back $3 million in grant funds.
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At the October council meeting, councillors were notified of fossil-maker Michael Durrant's withdrawal of participation in the Gulgong Natural History Museum. As a result, it was resolved to discontinue work on the project and to advise the funding body and community of the decision.
Mr Durrant spent the last 35 years amassing one of the largest collections of fossil replicas in the world, earning him international acclaim and recognition. A selection of state-of-the-art fossil replicas was set to be displayed in the multi-million dollar museum that was planned to be built at Red Hill in Gulgong.
Trouble began when the Red Hill location was criticised by a group of opponents to the plan across social media. A survey conducted by Mid-Western Regional Council showed that 82.4 per cent of Gulgong locals were in favour of building the museum at the historic Red Hill. However a small group of vocal opponents of that plan led to a move to go back to the community for further feedback.
Michael faced a raft of criticisms from the small collective of residents who questioned his expertise and legitimacy as a fossil maker and collector.
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"I never expected to come across this wall of resistance from a small group of people. I'm very disappointed, I'm sad for all the people in the area that obviously loved what I was going to do and made it clear," Mr Durrant said.
"And now that another town has potentially grabbed it, that'll be great - I'll probably have more people through in a larger center but it's still sad because the Council were - with on exception - spectacular in this. They worked hard to get this there, to get the money and they saw it as a positive thing and would last for 100 years and I'd bequeath my collection to the town after my death anyway so that it was all going to be there as a permanent attraction to educate people in the area."
Mid-Western Regional Council General Manager Brad Cam told the Mudgee Guardian that the project cancellation was a dark day for the region and that our loss could be another town's gain.
"It is extremely disappointing, especially when we put in many hours of work with Michael convincing him to come to Gulgong and work with council and for this happen is - in my eyes - very, very disappointing and quite a dark day for us to have to hand back $3 million of grant money," Mr Cam said.
"Equally key to that application was that it had to be at Red Hill and it had to be in Gulgong. So we couldn't - we even went to the funding body to see if we could actually change the location but they made it very clear we weren't able to.
"Once other areas found out we had pulled out, Michael has already had another local government area approach him."
One such interested party has been Dubbo Regional Council Mayor, Mathew Dickerson who confirmed that he has expressed interest personally in picking up where Gulgong left off and displaying Michael's collection in the Dubbo region.
"It was my interest, I've shared that with councillors and taken it to our staff and asked if they could follow it up and see what we could do with it and we display it," Mr Dickerson said.
Dickerson approached Mid-Western Regional Council to ask in good faith if he could ring Mr Durrant about the collection. The grant money does not transfer so any plans Dubbo might have in the future would be contingent on alternate funding.
"It seems like a good opportunity and I'd hate it to be lost to the region...," Mr Dickerson said.
"But personally, I think it would make a huge amount of sense to have it at the Wellington Caves.
"We've got a great display of some fossils now. So again, adding to that will just add to the whole exhibition I think.
"So there's a fair few steps to go through yet, but I heard it on the news and thought, 'gee, that's disappointing.'"
The fallout from the project's cancellation could have a ripple effect in the region, with the NSW Government pulling back on grant spending in the last few months.
"It never bodes well with a funding body when we're pulling out of a project and handing the money back," Mr Cam said.
"I understand why Michael did what he did. To be constantly persecuted about his integrity and his collection - and what he was very concerned about was Council spending ratepayers' money putting a DA together - which could cost us up to $200,000... only then to have these people make representations at the joint regional planning panel creating a whole range of issues that I don't believe can be substantiated... particularly around the fact there are Aboriginal bones buried on the site, stating that it's now a sacred site.
"These things have never been discussed and had never been raised when we did the Gulgong Gold Experience. So Michael just felt he couldn't put up with this any longer and couldn't put council through that expense with the likelihood of us not getting a DA approval.
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