“It’s devastating”

Woolshed general manager Duncan Laidlaw outside his now fenced off venue.
Woolshed general manager Duncan Laidlaw outside his now fenced off venue.

Woolshed general manager Duncan Laidlaw was forced to say farewell to his staff last month, conceding that the uncertainty surrounding the future of Central Pier was just “too great.”

The Herald Sun can reveal checks carried out every two months in the 12 months to August this year by engineering consultant KBR failed to detect that almost a third of the piles under Shed 14 had some form of defects.

Having overcome numerous hurdles over his 11 years at the Woolshed, including a fire in 2016, he told Docklands News that seeing the heritage pier fenced off still gave him a “hollow feeling” in his stomach.

However, he said nothing had been more heartbreaking than having to deliver the news to his staff that they would be made redundant, following Development Victoria’s (DV’s) decision in September to close the pier until 2020 amid safety concerns.

While Mr Laidlaw said that the business was hopeful of returning to Docklands
next year and had since supported staff in finding work elsewhere, he said the whole experience had been “gut-wrenching.”

  • “It [laying off staff] was heartbreak,” he said. “There were so many tears and there is a lot of love from everyone, but they’re just gutted.”
  • “They’ve accepted that we had to let them go but just not to see each other’s faces every day is a big thing and that’s what we all talk about when we catch up. It’s unbelievable.”

Tenants are now questioning how they can trust Development Victoria appointed KBR — and are demanding to know if people were placed at risk.

The Woolshed is part of a group of businesses on Central Pier that collectively employed more than 1300 staff prior to its sudden shutdown in August by landlord DV.

The businesses, led by the pier’s anchor tenant Atlantic Group which has a lease on the pier until 2026, last month announced that it would be suing DV for $100 million for what it alleged as a “failure” to maintain the pier.

In their statement of claim launched in the Federal Court on October 7, tenants argued that DV “engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct” and “did not act reasonably” when it shut the pier down on August 28 without providing a “proper report” of its condition.

Docklands News’ request to DV for a copy of the engineering report that led to the shutdown under Freedom of Information (FoI) was formally denied last month. Key reasons cited by DV included that its disclosure was contrary to the public interest, sensitivity of information and that its release would compromise the quality of future engineering works on the pier. A request for review of the decision has been submitted to the Victorian Information Commissioner.

Mr Laidlaw said that while all business matters would be determined in court, he wasn’t shy in criticising DV for showing “no support” to those affected.

  • “We haven’t had a word. Not a word,” he said. “No information, no dates, not even what’s wrong with the pier … we don’t even know what’s wrong with it. Where is it damaged? What’s made it that way? Nothing. Zero.”
  • “Hatem [Saleh] and Tony Schiavello [Atlantic Group] and that have their meetings with them [DV], but they’re still told basically nothing. So, they can’t pass on information they don’t have. That’s the hard part of it.”
  • “They’ve said they are supporting us as I’ve seen on the news … doing what? Did you help my staff find jobs? Did you come and help pay their bills? Did you come and say, ‘really sorry guys, what can we do to help?’. None. Zero. So, what have you done to support us?”
  • “We’ve had that many issues down here with road closures, when they moved the tram lines and they’re always doing works here and there and there’s always been a hurdle, but we’ve managed to get over it and keep our business rising.”
  • “So, to shut us down with no reason, no excuse, no apology. We’re paying you rent. Their job is to maintain that pier. They haven’t maintained it and it’s devastating for the whole of Docklands and Victoria because it’s heritage-listed.”

Mr Laidlaw said that the knock-on effect of the pier’s closure on local businesses and the Docklands community had been “huge” and that like many of his fellow Docklanders, he hoped to see the pier reopen as soon as possible.

  • “My biggest thing is the staff. The human element that has been lost. The thousands of people that live and work and breathe off it,” he said.
  • “The disappointing thing, as a resident of Docklands, and someone who has lived and breathed Docklands for the past 11 years is just having this whole beautiful structure that’s on the water gone.”
  • “Where else do you go? The reason you come to Docklands is for the water. There
    is nowhere to go on the water apart from a couple of restaurants.”
  • “The name Central Pier is for a reason – we’re the central focal point of Docklands. We bring Docklands together and now there is a gaping hole.”

DV has been unable to provide any comment on Central Pier while the matter is in court.

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