Gordon McKern. Photo; Andrew Perryman.

The Aspire Cultural and Charitable Foundation’s ambitious Aspire precinct won’t progress as planned.

The project was slated to begin earlier this year, with an unsuccessful federal government funding application said to be the latest reason for the halt.

After receiving a $5 million guarantee from the Victorian Labor Party just weeks before the 2014 state election, Aspire said it was now declining the state government’s contribution.

The project’s recent failure is blamed on dwindling available resources and repeated unsuccessful attempts to obtain federal government grants.

In a media release, the Aspire Foundation said its rethink “allows consideration of the future possibilities for the site.”

According to Aspire’s chairman Gordon McKern that rethink involves spending $2.5 million on construction of a parish hall, toilets and access to the Sacred Heart Cathedral, with the money available to spend now.

“If we have something open to the public, it could attract more donations,” Mr McKern said.

The revised plans have been ticked off by the foundation’s board, with construction reportedly slated to commence “within the first six months of 2020,” Mr McKern said.

The original $15M project has been consistently delayed since the foundation’s launch in February 2013.

Plans for an education centre, business hub, cafe, retail outlets  and interpretive centre, among others, were floated as part of the precinct.

“The Foundation’s Board has determined that it is not possible at this time to arrive at an outcome that would satisfy all stakeholder requirements within the overall business case,” Aspire’s media release said.

In its most recently published special purpose financial report for the financial year ending June 30, 2018, the foundation received just $1006 in donations in 2017-18, compared to $524,762 in 2016-17.

Aspire Foundation chairman Gordon McKern couldn’t reveal an exact figure for donations in the 2018-19 recent financial year.

“The donations were minimal,” Mr McKern said, agreeing that donations were less than the $1006 received in 2017-18.

The financial report also reveals the foundation had a net operating deficit of $123,872 in 2017-18.

In excess of $200,000 was spent on contracted, consultancy services between 2016-18, according to data from the reports, published via the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

A donations portal remains active on the Aspire Foundation’s website.

“All funds raised for the purposes of the Aspire Foundation, being the protection and preservation of Sacred Heart Cathedral’s heritage, will be used strictly in accordance with the Foundation’s charitable purpose,” chairman Gordon McKern said in a prepared statement.

The foundation has access to a non-interest bearing loan facility of $600,000 provided by the Catholic Diocese of Sandhurst, of which there was just $69,757 available as of June 30, 2018.

Federal member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters said the federal government rejected every application by the Aspire Foundation.

“It will always be challenging for faith-based projects when they’re up against airports and aquatic centres. These grant programs have competitive tender processes,” Ms Chesters said.

A lynchpin of the precinct’s plans included an interpretative centre that would house stories and photographs of objects or artefacts for display.

La Trobe University’s Faith on the Goldfields project was integral to this, with research examining different religions in Bendigo forming the bulk of the centre’s materials.

Jennifer Jones from La Trobe University’s history department said the university is moving away from a physical display and will curate its own digital archive.

“Our contribution has changed – we are going to put out a call for digital contributions,” Dr Jones said.

“We think it’s more viable to use digital media, so that people don’t have to relinquish an item, letter or photograph.”

– NICHOLAS NAKOS