Residential accommodation for older people is emerging as the most likely future use for the old Mullumbimby Hospital site, following a survey of locals and a number of expressions of interest.
After the state government offered to sell the 13-acre site to Byron Shire Council for $1 plus the considerable cost of remediation last May, there has been much discussion and debate about the best use of the site and how to pay for it.
A survey of around 200 locals conducted on behalf of the Mullumbimby Hospital Site Project Reference Group has found that the vast majority of respondents felt that some form of accommodation for older people was a top priority.
The chair of the reference group, Greens councillor Jeanette Martin, said it was ‘very strong from the community point of view that we need a diverse range of senior’s living’.
‘It’s still early stages but that is definitely where the community is at,’ Cr Martin said.
Cr Martin said that respondents indicated they were less interested in having a new library or a creative centre built on the site as had previously been suggested.
Other ideas, such as an innovation hub or a childcare centre, also appear to be of less interest to the community based on the survey data.
‘I think there may be a bit of a lack of understanding in the community about some of the ideas for the site, but it’s pretty clear that accommodation for older people is the favoured option,’ Cr Martin said.
Accommodation for older people has also dominated the formal expression of interest process for the site.
All three proposals for the future of the site that have been submitted to the reference group have focused on seniors’ living and aged care.
The only other proposal relates to a history project that does not propose a specific future use.
Cr Martin, deputy mayor Basil Cameron and reference group member Gil Lomath confirmed that Catholic Health Care had formally expressed its interest in expanding its Coolamon agedcare facility in the future to include residential aged-care accommodation.
When contacted by The Echo, Catholic Health Care refused to provide any details about the proposal, or to even confirm that it had made one.
However, councillor Jeanette Martin said the existing Coolamon facility was in ‘desperate need’.
‘Their proposal is for something broader, bigger and newer,’ Cr Martin said.
The other two proposals, from the Mullumbimby Hospital Action Group (MHAG) and the local community housing collaboration Social Habitat, both focused on alternative models of accommodation for older people.
Gil Lomath, a longstanding member of MHAG, said that her group’s proposal recognised older people’s desire to be autonomous and independent. ‘People in their 60s and 70s and 80s have still got a lot of energy,’ Ms Lomath said of the MHAG proposal, written by Dr Sonia Laverty, a local resident who has both academic and hands-on experience in the aged-care sector.
‘People don’t want to to be locked away in an institution. They want to age in a place that feels like a real home.’
‘We’re also hoping that by providing suitable accommodation for older people on the hospital site we can free up houses in town for families to live in.
The Social Habitat proposal also diverges significantly from the mainstream ‘aged care’ model.
It’s architect, Malcolm Price, has envisaged a village-style community that is completely open to other locals.
‘I started working with an idea based on a spider’s web,’ Mr Price said.
‘At the centre is a community facility – that might include a re-imagined library that is more like a co-working space rather than just a book suppository, an holistic health centre.
‘People who have less mobility and maybe need a bit of help sometimes live closer to the centre, and those with full mobility who are completely independent live further out.
‘The whole area is completely open and accessible to the community – not some closed-up, gated community or facility where older people live away from everyone else.’
Mr Price suggested that rather than expanding, the existing Coolamon facility could become a facility for the very last stage of life, allowing people to remain active and engaged in the world for as long as possible.
Funding remains a significant challenge for those seeking a more innovative approach.
Catholic Health Care has an advantage in this respect owing to its cash reserves and ability to obtain finance.
However, the possibility of a mixed-use arrangement featuring commercial and community uses remains on the table. Deputy mayor Basil Cameron emphasised that all of the submissions were being considered.
‘We haven’t finished our investigations yet,’ Cr Cameron said
‘Once we’ve done that we’ll start pulling it all together and developing a clear plan.’