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08 January 2020
By SARAH SCULLY
The future of Australia’s richest and most prestigious footrace should become clearer in the coming weeks as Stawell Athletic Club leaders continue to negotiate a lifeline with the State Government.
The club’s committee came under fire from the public at the end of December when the government announced club leaders had rejected a $280,000 bailout for the 2020 Stawell Gift.
Stawell Athletics Club patron and 2014 gift winner Luke Versace led the outcry from the athletics community, resigning his position effective immediately and publicly stating he had ‘lost faith in the Stawell Athletic Club committee to act in the best interests of the event, as opposed to the best interests of themselves’.
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Versace said as patron, he was involved in negotiations between the club and the government to ‘secure the future of the event, both in the short and long-term’.
He accused the club of refusing to share or cede control in areas it previously had full autonomy in exchange for life-saving funding.
“From my perspective this is completely unacceptable and an unjustifiable betrayal of both the history and future of an event that means so much to so many,” he said.
The Stawell Gift is run at Central Park on the Easter long-weekend each year and has been contested every year bar four years since 1878.
Not only is the gift carnival the pinnacle of Australian running events, it is an important economic driver for the Northern Grampians’ economy.
When the State Government bailed out the event in 2019 with an emergency $138,000 to restore prize-money and television coverage, the club signed a memorandum of understanding that any further funding would be conditional on changes to the commercial, governance and non-racing elements of the event. Following a review, a government-appointed consultant proposed a new committee of management, which would include representatives from SAC, the council, Victorian Athletic League, Grampians Tourism and independent members with expertise in event management and marketing.
The purpose of the new committee was to improve the event experience for participants, visitors and viewers by leveraging the TV broadcast, the tourism offerings in the region and the entertainment offerings at the carnival.
On December 19 the government announced SAC had resolved to not accept the review recommendations and associated funding.
Following Versace’s statement, Stawell Gift participants and fans quickly took to social media to condemn the club for its decision.
A ‘Save the Stawell Gift’ Facebook page, created by 2017 men’s gift winner Matt Rizzo garnered more than 800 ‘likes’, while an online ‘Save the Stawell Gift’ petition, by Brad Armstrong of Armstrong Athletics, soon had close to 2000 signatures.
Northern Grampians Shire mayor Murray Emerson said following the announcement he was disappointed the SAC ‘decided to take a different path from the generous offer from the State Government’.
He said, however, the council – which also provides significant financial and in-kind support for the gift – would continue to support SAC regardless of its decision.
“It is not the council’s place to make or influence the decisions for the independent sporting clubs in our region but to support and assist them to improve the lives of our residents and visitors to our region,” he said.
“The Stawell Gift remains the jewel in the crown of our region’s event calendar and we intend to ensure that remains the case by working closely with the Stawell Athletic Club in future years of the event.”
On Monday, Cr Emerson told The Weekly Advertiser negotiations between SAC and the government were ongoing.
“The athletics club is still deciding what they are going to do,” he said.
“The council is not involved in the negotiations, so we need to wait until the SAC has advised us of their decision.
“The government’s offer is a very good one and I am very hopeful they seriously consider it.
“Regardless of the decision they make, the council will support them.
“Hopefully in the next couple of weeks they will come to a decision.”
Stawell Athletic Club president Neil Blizzard yesterday told The Weekly Advertiser that the club was preparing to make an announcement about the future of the Stawell Gift soon.
He declined to make further comment but said the club would put out a statement about its decision either later this week or next week.
The entire January 8, 2020 edition of The Weekly Advertiser is available online. READ IT HERE!