The campaign to have the old Byron District Hospital site placed in community hands has taken a significant step forward. A formal proposal backed by local political and business figures was put to the state government last Friday.
Under the plan, believed to have considerable state government support, NSW Health would lease the 2,000sqm site to the community for a nominal fee with Byron Shire Council acting as lessee or trustee.
The government would also provide $2.5m to fund the full refurbishment of the main hospital building and the remediation work required on the site.
This would pave the way for the dilapidated hospital to be transformed into a mixed-use community hub providing much-needed services for the local area.
NSW Upper House MP Ben Franklin (Nationals) who helped put the proposal together and presented it to his parliamentary colleagues on Friday said he was ‘optimistic’ that it would be adopted.
‘I have had a number of conversations about this with the premier, the deputy premier and the health minister,’ said Mr Franklin, the parliamentary secretary for northern NSW.
‘They are interested and engaged and supportive of the concept of maximising community space.
‘They haven’t given me any guarantees but I certainly haven’t been discouraged by anything they’ve said.’
On June 28 Byron Shire Council voted unanimously to support the proposal.
This included agreeing to act as the lessee/trustee, and agreeing to oversee a facilities team to manage and maintain the facility, and its relationship with the community.
Assisting those campaigning for the site to become a community hub is the looming state election.
The Nationals lost the seat of Ballina in the last election after a 27-year reign and will no doubt be keen to wrest it back from the Greens at the next poll in early 2019.
A positive announcement about the future of the hospital site in the leadup to the vote would almost certainly boost their chances.
Despite having this political charge, the proposal for the site is the outcome of cooperation between locals from across the political spectrum including Mr Franklin, local Greens MP Tamara Smith, Labor councillor Paul Spooner, Ballina Labor candidate Asren Pugh and Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson (Greens).
At the weekend’s ALP conference a motion supporting the use of the old hospital site as a community facility was supported.
It also has the support of key local business figures who are among approximately 80 locals who have written formal letters in support of the plan.
The proposal involves the creation of a community hub in which affordable rental accommodation is provided to organisations representing the welfare, health, education and cultural sectors.
It includes a business plan under which rents would be structured in three tiers, with Tier 1 being for commercial organisations and Tier 3 being a zero-cost space for community projects.
Once the facility is fully occupied, income would be distributed back to community organisations on a merit basis.
Chris Hanley, the chairman of the community steering committee responsible for the plan, said that if the state government agreed to the proposal, he was confident it would work.
‘The business case is the demonstration that if the building is given to the community of Byron Shire with the money to fix it, the rents will be enough to sustain it,’ Mr Hanley said.
‘The building is pretty good inside but it needs some work and part of the money we’re asking for would go into a sinking fund.
‘It’s an old building and some of the money we’re asking for would be held for any future repairs that are needed. The $2.5m is a quote from an experienced local architect.’
Fifteen organisations have supplied letters of intention, indicating their readiness and desire to be part of the hub.
While they have asked not to be named publicly in order to protect their existing lease arrangements, The Echo has learnt that the list includes some of the region’s largest education and cultural institutions, as well as much smaller not-for-profit groups.
‘All of those who have expressed an interest are looking forward to getting spaces that don’t cost the earth,’ Mr Hanley said.
‘Rent is so high in Byron Bay, this is a great opportunity.’
He said the proposal and the campaign as a whole had demonstrated the ability of locals to work together for the common good.
‘This is the outcome of more than a year of work from a very dedicated and smart group of people.
‘We wouldn’t even be having this conversation without Ben Franklin. But every single political group has supported this – (local Greens MP) Tamara Smith has been very helpful, (local Labor councillor) Paul Spooner, and the Mayor.
‘We’ve also had letters of support that would blow you away, from the former matron of the hospital Shirley Nelson, to young people in their 20s who were born at the hospital.’
Mr Franklin said he had asked his parliamentary colleagues to make a decision on the plan within ‘a small number of months’.
‘There’s an election within nine months’ time; we definitely want it off the books by then. I want it locked and loaded,’ he said.
‘I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to do it before then.’