Jemma Bates had been associated with the construction industry for over 15 years when she was approached about working on the project to build Australia’s first, and the world’s second, purpose-built LGBTQI Community Hub – the Victorian Pride Centre.

“Of course, I jumped at the opportunity,” Bates said, recalling the time Ro Allen, Victoria’s Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities, sounded her out about being involved with the project.

Bates is one of the three women – affectionately called ‘The Triple J’s’ – leading from the frontlines to set up the Pride Centre. The others are CEO Justine Dalla Riva and Board Chair Jude Munro.

Dalla Riva had a long career in communications, working with not-for-profits and smaller emerging organisations, when she joined the then team of two, involved in establishing the Pride Centre, in 2018.

“I jumped at the opportunity to work for the LGBTQI+ community as I’d not done so before and with having two young kids I wanted to show how important it is to create and have safe, inclusive and welcoming spaces,” says Dalla Riva, a happily married lesbian and mother to 15-year-old and 10-year-old teenagers. “(They) keep me out of trouble!” she confesses.

Victorian Pride Centre Scheduled To Open In 2021

The Pride Centre on Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, slated for a May 2021 opening has a lot of hopes and dreams riding on its success.

Envisioned as a hub for the Victorian LGBTQI community, the organisations that will move into the new space include Minus18, Thorne Harbour Health, Star Health, MQFF, AGMC, Transgender Victoria, Australian Queer Archives, Monash Gender Clinic, JOY 94.9, Switchboard (admin), Hares and Hyenas Bookshop and the Star Observer.

The local Port Phillip City council gifted the land, valued at over $13 million, on which the Pride Centre is built. The Victorian government has invested around $25 million towards the project. The city has pinned its hopes on the Pride Centre and the LGBTQI community to revive the Fitzroy Street neighbourhood.

Lined with palm trees, the busy St Kilda Road and the popular St Kilda beach on either ends, and abutting Albert Park, Fitzroy street was once a vibrant neighbourhood and Melbourne’s nightclub spot. Every year, the LGBTQI community converges on the street for the Midsumma Pride march.

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 Today, the street is dotted with tales of its past as a culture hub, empty, locked up shops and ailing businesses. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the resulting international travel restrictions meant that many of the accommodation and hospitality venues could no longer rely on backpackers and tourists as their primary sources of income.

Regeneration of Fitzroy Street

The Victorian Pride Centre therefore will play a very important role in the regeneration of Fitzroy Street and the neighbourhood. In September 2019, City of Port Phillip council underscored the importance of its continued investment in the VPC project.

The Council is looking at the VPC as part of its Urban Renewal objective to attract between “$15,000,000-$25,000,000 in investment to the section of Fitzroy Street most affected by commercial and social underperformance (between Grey and Acland Streets).”

The Council identified that its “investment would deliver an additional $46 million of socio-economic benefits to the precinct over the next 20 years and provide capacity for health care, advisory and support services for LGBTIQ members.”

Premier Daniel Andrews way back in 2016 had announced that the Pride Centre would be built. Modelled after San Francisco’s LGBT Community Centre, it is hoped the Victorian Pride Centre would play a similar role for the community and the city.

Beacon of Hope

“I feel so proud and fortunate to be playing a role in what will be a beacon of hope to not just Victorians, but nationally and internationally. What we are creating is unique and will be the second largest Pride Centre in the world, this can only bring a sense of pride and excitement!” says Dalla Riva.

The Pride Centre carries with it the aspirations of a community, as well as a city, the community and local residents,. But looking back on the actual construction phase, by no means was it one of the easiest projects that Bates had to deal with in her career.

“One of the biggest challenges as Project Manager has been helping to navigate the project through so many issues that have arisen over the past two years that have been completely out of anyone’s control. From the early days finding large amounts of asbestos and rock during excavation, through to delays caused by the 2020 bushfires and of course COVID-19, which has had a significant impact on our program and the community in general. We really have seen it all on this project but we are still standing strong (and proud),” says Bates.

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 Traversing the obstacle course that the construction threw at her at every point, has come with the joys of knowing that more than a building, it is a legacy that was being built.

“I do joke that I have laughed and cried in every corner of the building, but the ride has absolutely been worth it knowing that future generations will be able to call the Centre home,” says Bates.

A Challenging Build

While Bates was tackling the build and firefighting on almost a daily basis, the team led by Dalla Riva was at work to make the dream of a vibrant community space a reality.

“It’s about keeping all the balls in the air at one time from construction, community consultation, leasing, licensing, OHS, communication and promotion. There is so much more to building the Pride Centre than just the bricks and mortar,” says Dalla Riva.

Now in its final stretch and heading towards completion, the Pride centre is looking to welcome its new residents and the community soon. Dalla Riva and her team have their work cut out for them “to set up the most loved, well known and visited home for the LGBTIQ community in Australia.”

“This is no easy vision,” acknowledges Dalla Riva, adding, “but one I believe can be realised by stepping out of our horizons and looking further into the future.”

As the first CEO of the Pride Centre, Dalla Riva sees the VPC as “an organisation that will empower individuals and communities to fully engage in society by providing a place where people are valued, respected, celebrated and safe. We will do this through facilitating access, innovation and connection to essential services, supports, groups and most importantly each other. Ultimately creating a place of belonging were people can bring their best and most authentic selves. This is the kind of place I would ‘love’ and one that deserves to be called a ‘home’.”

“While we may be the triple J’s, the Pride Centre has been built by a community for a community,” Dalla Riva signs off.

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