Music teacher's vision for Port Stephens performing arts centre hinges on expressions of interest but could bring stage shows to town

CANVASING SUPPORT: Eugene Willems is a musical director with "more than a casual interest" in making an arts space happen in Raymond Terrace. Picture: Sam Norris
CANVASING SUPPORT: Eugene Willems is a musical director with "more than a casual interest" in making an arts space happen in Raymond Terrace. Picture: Sam Norris

A musical director and former school planner has outlined his vision for a performing arts theatre-come-community centre in the heart of Raymond Terrace.

Eugene Willems has a masters of education and was a high school principal in rural Victoria before he moved to Raymond Terrace last year to begin a music school.

He said there were strong similarities between Raymond Terrace –  90 minutes from Sydney –  and his former home of Warragul –  an hour and 30 minutes from Melbourne –  similar in population and rural outlook, both located on major highways.

The main difference being the West Gipsland Arts Centre –  a 400-seat theatre and community centre – while Raymond Terrace “has nothing”.

“Warragul was a sleepy town of 10,000 people when it built the theatre in the 1980s and it’s now 25,000,” Mr Willems said.

“It’s been a drawcard for the town hosting big shows like Aladdin, Cats and West Side Story and with Raymond Terrace on the [Pacific Highway] it’s a natural location for a similar arts space.

“Warragul has been so successful it’s now undergoing one of the biggest performing arts redevelopments in Australia and will have 750 seats when it is finished.”

As musical director Mr Willems said he was part of 12 major productions, not including smaller shows.

He pointed to Newcastle, Maitland and Cessnock as other areas in the Hunter Valley with performing arts spaces but noted that Raymond Terrace was absent from the list, not only as a space for students but major shows that help boost the economy.

His vision coincides with Port Stephens Council’s expressions-of-interest for ideas to shape its strategic plan for the next 10 years that when finished will include a priority list of projects.

“Yes, Newcastle has the Civic theatre but it’s so congested now and that makes parking a challenge,” he said.

“This would give Raymond Terrace a forum for all kinds of community events and bring people to town for various shows, have a meal, even do some shopping.

“It would even give Raymond Terrace the opportunity to redevelop its town centre around a performing arts precinct and give the town a chance to create a whole new identity.”

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He said it could be located at any number of places that might include a spot on the river if built on piers, with ground-level parking, near the Raymond Terrace Library, or at Boomerang Park.

“The location is really up to the town, there should be a dialogue, [because] the centre itself doesn’t require much space even if it includes a restaurant-cafe,” he said.

“What it would need is car parking but this also benefits people doing their shopping, in the day, because it’s at night that a centre like this is used most.”

The strategic plan Port Stephens 2021-2028: Our place, Our plan, is on public exhibition and as such is open to feedback, including ideas.

For more information visit portstephens.nsw.gov.au or contact Penny Amberg on 0419 676 533 or Nicole Cotterill on 0407 001 515.

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