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It’s been over two decades in the making, but at long last, Leichhardt’s Cultural Centre, located in the Italian Forum off Norton Street, is open for business. The Centre held its first event on Sunday, July 19, with a concert representing the culmination of the 2009 MODART program, a biennial development program for new composers.

Few performances, however, could match the drama of the Cultural Centre inception, a saga worthy of the most epic operatic score. The Italian Forum site was originally a bicentennial gift from the Greiner state government towards the Italian community in 1988. Construction of the Forum began a decade later, but developer Chase Properties concentrated on the piazza’s commercial and residential areas, leaving the area earmarked for the Cultural Centre an “empty shell”, according to Italian Forum general manager Monica Scagliarini. A legal action brought against Chase in 2001 was finally settled out of court in 2004 for $5 million. The Forum has since used that money to develop the Cultural Centre project. “I think what we have been able to deliver with $3.6 million has been a miracle,” Ms Scagliarini said.

The first, completed, stage of the project consists of a 320-seat auditorium, in addition to a multimedia centre and gallery. Meeting rooms, exhibition areas and an industrial kitchen are earmarked for the next stage of the development.

The Forum is hoping to attract major Sydney institutions to make use of the Centre’s facilities. “Sydney Dance Company found the floor very suitable, so they are thinking about setting up a dance school,” said Ms Scagliarini. The Sydney Festival, too, is considering the venue for possible use in 2011.

The Centre comes at a vital time for the Forum as a whole, which has been struggling to attract business, especially in the wake of the economic downturn. “The whole of Leichhardt has been struggling due to the recession – the Forum has been pretty quiet,” said Basil Simmons, manager of the ‘Sapore Della Vigna’ restaurant in the Forum. “It’s going to be a tough winter. We’re hoping there’ll be an increase in business – [that the Centre will] bring people down here to enjoy the facilities of the Forum.”

But some were less than impressed with the lack of communication evident prior to the Centre’s launch. “It’d be nice if they mentioned something to us when they’re doing something,” said Tom Kappa, manager of ‘Caesars Cucina Italiano’ restaurant. “They should have consulted with us, saying they’re having a grand opening or something.”

Ms Scagliarini conceded they are right, but says there were mitigating circumstances. “We rushed quite a lot to make this event happen, due to some bureaucratic issues with [Leichhardt] Council,” she said. “So we didn’t have time to inform the commercial businesses around the Forum. That was an exceptional case – in the future, of course they will be the first ones to be informed.”