ORLANDO has Disney World, the Gold Coast has Dream World and now the NSW Central Coast wants in on the action with a $500 million theme park of its own.
But the bizarre project, which is due to be built on a 15ha plot of scrub near Wyong, has been on a rollercoaster ride of its own with the land yet to be fully paid for, secret meetings held behind closed doors and the possibility of Australian visas for overseas investors the main attraction.
Critics say locals are “spewing” about the planned theme park and doubt it will ever be built. Not so, say council, who predict the attraction will be a “major tourism drawcard” for the area.
Things were far more cordial in mid-2014 when Wyong Shire mayor Doug Eaton and Australian China Theme Park (ACTP) boss Bruce Zhong launched the snappily titled ChappyPie China Time attraction which promised to bring together Chinese “culture, nature and spirit”.
Mr Eaton went so far as to proclaim that the park would be a tourist magnet to rival the Sydney Opera House or Harbour Bridge.
‘YOU AND A PANDA’
A video released at the time spoke up the park’s attractions. “The Spring Festival Square is like centre stage full of happy and auspicious atmosphere,” the video proclaimed while a “panda paradise creates a harmonious relationship between you and a panda”.
There was no talk of traditional theme park rides, such as big dippers or water slides. But, the video did say “like a Chinese chess board, the theme park has reasonable layout”.
The council had agreed to sell the land at Warnervale to ACTP for $10 million with a promise of a half a billion investment on the site with the initial phase of the park due to open its doors about now.
But the site, sandwiched between a Woolworths distribution centre and an aerodrome near the M1 Pacific Motorway, has had little in the way of development.
The multimillion-dollar payday for council has also failed to materialise with ACTP reportedly only having coughed up a $100,000 deposit of the $10 million sale price agreed for the land.
“It took nearly a year to get $100,000 out of them, that’s not even 10 per cent. You tell me where you can buy a block of land for less than 10 per cent,” said Wyong councillor Bob Graham, a noted critic of the park.
Talking to news.com.au, Mr Graham said he was baffled by the park’s list of proposed attractions which also includes a thanksgiving temple, a full sized replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City and an arts and crafts workshop as well as the panda grove.
“It’s supposedly a Chinese theme park but how many Chinese people are going to come from China to the Central Coast to see some plastic pandas and things they can see in their own country?”
In an effort to bring more investment into the park, it’s been claimed ACTP took to Chinese messaging platform WeChat last year with a hard-to-refuse offer — plough $1 million into the theme park and potentially nab yourself an Australian visa.
The promotion stated investors would ‘‘get $1 million investment back after four years’’ and ‘‘get permanent residency straight away”, reported the Central Coast Express Advocate. The Australian visa would be “for your whole family”.
The business talent (permanent) visa (subclass 132) gives venture capitalists entry to Australia for a “high-value business idea” but applicants must be nominated by a state or territory agency.
The promotion did carry the logo of the NSW planning and environment department but seemingly without the knowledge of the state government who demanded its removal and threatened legal action, reported the NewcastleHerald in June.
Also in June, the planning department delivered a blow to the theme park by refusing to rezone the land to a tourist zone as well as limiting the height of any planned buildings. They also questioned estimates of 1000 jobs on the site and noted the lack of any projections of visitor numbers. Despite these misgivings, they did allow the project to proceed.
The park came under scrutiny again when it was revealed a company owned by ACTP, the park’s developers, had 100,000 shares listed under the name of Hongyi Yang, the same Chinese name as the mayor’s wife, Ruby Eaton. Mr Eaton said the couple had no knowledge of the shares and the office of local government took no further action on the matter.
Shortly after the revelation Ms Eaton filed racial and sexual discrimination complaint against a number of critics of the park including Mr Graham and local Labor MP David Harris who has called the theme park a “pie-in-the-sky project”.
“Their only reason for opposing the proposed theme park is that it is Chinese. This is unlawful,” the Central Coast Express Advocate reported Ms Eaton as saying. The complaint, however, seems to have stalled.
BIG TEMPLE, NO ROLLERCOASTERS
In July, ACTP lodged a development application for the first part of the park. But rather than amusement arcades or Ferris wheels the $83.5 million proposal was for a Buddhist temple, meditation halls and a 244-unit, four-storey pilgrim lodge with 20 monks living permanently on the site.
The plan has raised the concerns of some local people who have opposed the theme park from the get go.
“I’m concerned they might change the zoning and build massive blocks of apartments,” said Martin Axe, who has set up a Facebook page opposed to the park.
“I’m struggling to see the benefits of the theme park and no one I speak to seems to want it at all.”
In November, ACTP asked the council for new terms to pay back the $9.9 million still owing on the site which was due by December 2, a deadline the company missed, the Express Advocate reported. Councillors voted 5-4 to go back to ACTP and negotiate a new deal for the land.
‘IT’S NOT HARD’
Last week, Wyong councillors met for a briefing behind closed doors to discuss the future of the theme park. It was a meeting Mr Graham refused to attend. He said the matter should have been discussed in public and ACTP stripped of the site.
“It’s not hard. You say, sorry you can’t meet the obligations and let the council get on with selling it for a reasonable profit and investing it back in our community,” he told news.com.au.
“This has been going for a number of years and if council had offloaded that site that money could now be in the council coffers and invested in repairing kerb and gutters and things we desperately need.”
Talking to news.com.au, Mayor Eaton said councillors who were at the confidential briefing “were satisfied that the deal was a good one” for council.
THOUSANDS OF JOBS
“The theme park has and will pay very shortly very significant sums of money to council and I am confident, subject to getting a DA, that construction will start later this year.”
A spokeswoman for Wyong council said details of the new contract would be made public within the “next couple of weeks”.
A statement from council said it had received an executed heads of agreement from ACTP for the “proposed” purchase of land for the theme park. They were still “weeks away” from signing a contract.
“ACTP have indicated they will invest $500 million developing the park into a major tourism drawcard for the Central Coast, creating thousands of local jobs,” it read.
But Mr Graham has his doubts. “I don’t think it will ever be built, people are spewing about it, and the local people don’t want it.”
News.com.au contacted ACTP’s Ms Zhong about its plans for the park, when it was now due to open and how many visas it facilitated in exchange for investment in the project, but did not receive a reply.