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Brisbane's South Bank celebrates 30 years since its opening. And Donna Smith has been working there the whole time opening. And Donna Smith has been working there the whole time

Brisbane's South Bank celebrates 30 years since its opening. And Donna Smith has been working there the whole time opening. And Donna Smith has been working there the whole time

12 July, 2022

1992. Wayne Goss was the premier. Jim Soorley was the lord mayor. Interest rates were falling. Billy Ray Cyrus's Achy Breaky Heart was topping the Australian charts.

And at the South Bank Parklands, you could ride a boat.

When it opened 30 years ago this week, thousands of balloons were released, colouring the sky above an excited crowd, in what an ABC News report at the time described as the biggest celebration since Expo 88.

Donna Smith was there. She was 16 and working in her father's lolly shop, which opened at South Bank the same day.

"I remember it being extremely busy. And lots and lots of people coming in and out of the store and even lining up to get in. It was crazy," Ms Smith said.

Three decades on, Ms Smith now owns and runs the business with her husband.

They have kept things pretty much the same – even the striped uniform.

"We've done very minimal renovations to keep that magic alive.

"[People who visited as children] come in now and it still looks the same and they can't believe it's still here."

However, much has changed. Gone is the butterfly house and a tourist attraction called Gondwana Land in the original precinct.

"You'd pay an entry fee to go in and walk along the boardwalk. And there'd be all these different spots where you'd see a crocodile. And there'd be all sorts of native animals," Ms Smith said.

As well as the man-made beach, there was an artificial canal, complete with boats.

"You could hop on it on one end and you could ride the boat right down to the other end of the parkland," she said.

Research librarian Christina Ealing-Godbold, from the State Library of Queensland, said it felt like a theme park.

"I don't know why they decided to take it away, it could have been expense," Ms Ealing-Godbold said.

"But I do know there was a distinct feeling among Brisbane people these were very kitsch elements."

Arbour anger

As part of a redevelopment from 1997 to 2001, the boat canal was replaced with a 1-kilometre-long bougainvillea lined arbour.

Initially, people were up in arms about the arbour.

"Without the bougainvillea growing all over it, it looked quite weird. This strange metal structure being put through this parkland in the middle of our city," Ms Smith said.

"It's just incredible that there were so many people that didn't like the beginning, but now it's just incredible.

"I'm sure there's photos of people standing under it all over the world."

Parklands nearly sold off to developers

Following World Expo 88, the site was cleared, except for three heritage buildings.

The Queensland government planned to sell the 17-hectare precinct for commercial development, according to the South Bank Corporation's website.

"There was some fear of that. How well-founded it was I'm not sure," Ms Ealing-Godbold said.

In a 1988 newspaper article, then lord mayor Sallyanne Atkinson was quoted as saying the precinct could be used for "prestigious apartments, showrooms, offices, public and private housing and entertainment along the riverbank".

While she also told the paper the site should feature a "continuous park network", there were concerns about the space ending up in private hands.

"Brisbane people had so much loved having the expo site as a public space," Ms Ealing-Godbold said.

"I don't think they really wanted to see it go back to prestigious apartments.

"I think people were really frightened it might return to an industrial wasteland or an apartment slumland. They didn't want to lose it after it was used so wonderfully as a public place."

The late Sir Llew Edwards, a deputy premier in the Bjelke-Petersen Government and the Expo Authority chairman, outlined plans for a rainforest, concert areas and sculpture park to "recapture the atmosphere of Expo".

In 1989, the government set up the South Bank Corporation to develop and manage the area.

The South Bank Corporation's website says 6.3 million people visited in its first year.

The renewal continued with the construction of the Queensland Conservatorium of Music, Griffith University, the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, as well as apartments and a hotel.

'Ups and downs'

Over the years, the parklands have endured natural and economic disaster.

"COVID stopped a lot of tourists," Ms Smith said.

Major clean ups were needed after the 2011 and 2022 floods.

"A lot of the businesses are only just recovering from flood damage.

"[A whole strip] had no electricity for quite a while.

"The car park, of course, that got inundated again.

"We've certainly seen a lot of ups and downs. We've all been through a lot together at South Bank."

South Bank's transformation continues, with the Neville Bonner Bridge now reaching halfway across the river.

The pedestrian bridge will connect the parklands to the Queens Wharf development and is due to open in the first half of 2023.

A new theatre is also under construction on Grey Street, at the eastern end of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

It will have at least 1,500 seats and is scheduled to be finished by the end of the year.

South Bank said the food precinct is being refurbished but tenancies are yet to be announced.