A Hunter Valley tourism and hotel entrepreneur remains hopeful an Aboriginal cultural center will still find a home in Cessnock.
Dr Jerry Schwartz’s offer of free land for the construction of the Madoo Indigenous Museum – to celebrate the heritage of the Wonnarua community – is currently in a stalemate with Cessnock City Council (CCC).
Despite then mayor Bob Pynsent taking part in the announcement of the development almost two years ago, CCC officers informed the Crowne Plaza owner his proposal to supply 10 acres – out of a total 140-acre block – would not be allowed.
Council also insisted Dr Schwartz provide a bitumen surface to the road, which would cost more than $1.3 million.
Although exasperated by the bureaucratic “red tape”, and two main roadblocks thrown up by the local administrative body, he’s keen to see the project come to fruition once and for all.
“It would be a terrific drawcard for the Hunter Valley,” he said.
“I’m just frustrated by the number of hurdles.
“I don’t think council realizes how much of an attraction this could be for Cessnock.
“It’s an amazing thing for the Aboriginal community.”
The Madoo Indigenous Museum is expected to house and showcase a rich collection of local Indigenous artefacts currently stored in various offices and sites around the region.
In addition, the renowned Morrison Collection – including canoes, stone axes, clubs, spears, boomerangs and hundreds of other relics from the Hunter Valley – was designed to be relocated from the Australian Museum to the dedicated site.
“This [idea] all started with my association with Wonnarua Nation Aboriginal Corporation (WNAC) CEO Laurie Perry about seven years ago – and his dream was to have an Aboriginal cultural center in the district,” Dr Schwartz said.
“Along came this erratic and business-minded hotel owner who hoped to bring tourism to the Hunter Valley.
“Laurie was dealing with all these circles of government – and couldn’t manage to make any headway.
“So, the fact the two of us met was a good thing.
“We then put in application after application and, finally, we received an approval.”
A $6.25 million grant, from the NSW Government to the WNAC, was proclaimed in October 2020 by former Upper Hunter MP Michael Johnsen.
“The deal was I donate the land, at the far end of Wills Hill Road, and the government donates the money,” Dr Schwartz said.
“That was wonderful – we signed all the paperwork and hosted a ceremony where the Minister handed over the cheque.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have a development application (DA) then.
“We really did not think it would be a problem since everything else received the green light.
“However, there was a condition, well, lots of them.
“But, one centered around a developer – WNAC – having to surface Wills Hill Road and put a right-hand turn onto Wine Country Road.
“While we don’t have to deliver the right-hand turn now, we still have to resurface the road with tar.
“So, if you take the $1.3 million off the $6.25 million (for that job), it leaves you with just under $5 million for a building that was expected to cost more than $6 million but will be $4.9 million.
“It doesn’t work.”
Dr Schwartz then suggested two things.
“Cut out all the landscaping and make the building a bit cheaper, use the money for the road – and everyone’s happy,” he said.
“Or, why doesn’t the council surface the road?
“Sadly, they don’t want to do that; and the government wouldn’t make the building cheaper.
“So, I solved the impasse.
“I said: ‘I’ll surface the road, I’ll pay the $1.3 million.
“But, then, we were hit with another stumbling block.
“I was happy to donate the land, so I asked: ‘how do you do that?’
“They replied: ‘You sub-divide it’.
“However, council can’t do that because the smallest sub-division it undertakes is 100 acres.
“To me, 10 (acres) out of 140 is a sizeable allocation and obviously should be regarded as a special case when it comes to planning rules and regulations.
“Regrettably, they don’t seem to agree.
“So, I offered to lease the land to the WNAC for 99 years for $1 a year.
“But, they didn’t accept that either.
“Council has been aware of the arrangement for the past two years – all they’ve done is put roadblocks in the way.
“I’m calling on them to see the bigger picture and approve the land sub-division so everything can move forward.
“It’s no surprise Laurie Perry is now starting to look at another area.
“As well as being an important development to recognize Wonnarua heritage, we believe the museum could become a focal point for cultural tourism.
“We envisage it will attract Indigenous, school and special interest groups to the region, to share with the Wonnarua people their rich history and progress the goal of reconciliation with our First Nations people.”
In addition, Dr Schwartz purchased 32 cabins from a closed mining area for the site.
He’s set them up on his land, near a creek, to give students – and visitors – a place to stay in the Hunter Valley.
“Again, council won’t give me approval for the cabins because they’re too close to the creek,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.
“However, even during the recent flooding, they were unaffected because they’re up high.
“I don’t know why this is proving so difficult when there are many, many advantages.”
Dr Schwartz is confident the stand-off will alleviate with the arrival of Jay Suvaal.
“The new mayor is great,” he said.
“I understand he doesn’t want high-rises in the middle of the vineyards.
“But, he realizes the benefits of the Madoo Indigenous Museum – and the need to bring tourists to the region – without over-developing the Cessnock LGA.
“I’m positive we can reach a suitable resolution.”