The bust in the boom: or how Willow Court lost over $2.5 million in the Tassie property boom
TEN YEARS AGO, when Willow Court was still a psychiatric institution and Tasmania was governed by the Liberal Party, the Leader for the Government and later Minister for Health, Peter McKay, thought it would be a good idea to capitalise on the historic and tourism value of the site by moving out the patients and moving in the developers.
On introducing a Bill for the sale of the Willow Court site in 1995 Mr McKay told Parliament he thought it would cost the government about $6 million to make the transformation, with a likely return on the sale of the site of about $3 million. The $3 million dollar cost was, Mr McKay thought, worth it, and put in place a five-year plan to make things happen.
Unfortunately for Mr McKay a State election intervened, and in 1998 the Bacon Labor government grabbed a hold of the blueprint.
Forget $3 million. The historic site, or at least a large chunk of it, was sold to the Derwent Valley Council and its developer of choice a few years later for the princely sum of $350,000.
The cost of “Living Independently”: or what the State Government had to spend to close down Willow Court
Return on the investment did not seem to be a priority for the Labor government.
MLC Michael Aird (now Treasurer) had great trouble recalling exact details of the Willow Court sale, including the sale price, when questioned repeatedly in Parliament by Independent MP Tony Fletcher, a co-worker with Peter McKay on the original five year plan.
Deinstitutionalisation was grabbing the headlines and the Budget dollars, pushed along by then Health Minister Judy Jackson.
According to Ms Jackson, it made “good financial sense” that the institution be closed and a budget of $22 million was allocated accordingly.
“The infrastructure was very expensive, it was old, it was not suitable for the people living there, it cost a lot of money to maintain, and any money that was spent on that place was just money down the drain. Now it is going to go for ever”, Ms Jackson told Parliament.
Almost ten years later, those words have a canny reasonance.
Balance sheet blues: or, what $20 million dollars cannot buy for the State of Tasmania
Twenty million dollars was the amount Barbara Adams and her Willow Court web of companies was going to invest in redeveloping the old pysch site into a tourist mecca of cheap accommodation, restaurants and a training college – one of Rene Hidding’s ideas for the site in a speech to parliament back in 1997 when the closure of the hospital was announced.
“I would hazard a guess that there is probably nothing in the Southern Hemisphere that would come anything like this offering from the Government of Tasmania. Let us hope that we can attract something like a private university, that kind of thing, some sort of centre of learning”, Mr Hidding told Parliament.
More than $20 million dollars is the net cost to the State Government in closing down the Willow Court psychiatric hospital less proceeds from the sale of the land to the Derwent Valley Council.
Much was said at the time authority to sell the site was given to the Minister for Health about reinvesting the sale proceeds in Tasmanian mental health services. The Act authorising the sale expressly provides for this, as well as allowing the $350,000 to be used to “reimburse” Government for any money spent on getting the land up to scratch for the sale.
Whether any part of $350,000 made its way back to mental health services is unclear. Department of State Development officials told an Estimates Committee in 2001 that the proceeds had been deposited into the Crown Land Administration Fund. Where they ended up after that is not indicated.
As Peter McKay says today, if the government hadn’t spent the relocation money the patients “would still be languishing there” in Willow Court. Perhaps. But the potential to recover at least some of the State government’s investment in this relocation, and to preserve a Tasmanian landmark with the historical richness of Willow Court, appears to have been squandered.
“I was Minister for Health, remember”, says Mr McKay, “not Tourism”. Judy Jackson would no doubt echo the same sentiment.
But who in government – any government, at any time in the history of this project – was looking out for the economic, historical and social value of the site that was ‘left behind’ when the Health officials had packed up and gone home?
It was left to Derwent Valley Council to oversee the redevelopment, with the land going to them at a $350,000 song. This was just the beginning of a litany of delays, fallouts with developers, new developers and now a black hole of disappearing dollars and a derelict landmark site. Investors and workers on the site alike are out of pocket.
The Liberal Government’s five-year plan looks like a ten-year disaster, without a white knight in sight to turn things around.