A community push to build a veterans’ welfare centre in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley has hit a stumbling block, with the owner of the preferred site committed to selling the land.
- The RSL wants the centre to offer mental health services for veterans instead of them having to travel to Melbourne
- Wodonga TAFE says it has not received a formal proposal for the site, which it took over after DECA’s collapse in 2016
- Local residents say they support the property being used for veterans rather than being sold for housing
A number of groups, headed by the Moe RSL, want to set up the facility at the former Driver Education Centre of Australia (DECA) driving school in Newborough.
Moe RSL president Steve Mayes said the state’s south-east needed a centre that allowed veterans experiencing mental health problems to access support locally.
“We’ve got a veterans’ centre here at the Moe RSL but they can only do so much,” he said.
“A lot of the mental health problems we’ve got within the veteran community, they actually have to be shunted back to Melbourne.”
Since 2001, there have been more than 400 known cases of veteran suicide in Australia.
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After DECA collapsed in 2016, Wodonga TAFE acquired the 36-hectare property which includes the driving school and surrounding paddocks.
It is selling the property on John Field Drive — once owned by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria (SECV) — for almost $1.4 million.
The SECV awarded the land in 2003 to the local TAFE, which later transferred it to DECA free of charge two years later.
‘No formal proposal’
The RSL wants Wodonga TAFE to either commit to using the property for a veterans’ welfare centre or to a peppercorn-rent deal if it can show the project is viable.
Mr Mayes said he wanted to secure a location before seeking State Government support to develop a business case for the project.
Steve Mayes and local councillor Sharon Gibson want a veterans centre set up in the Latrobe Valley. (ABC Gippsland: Jarrod Whittaker)
But Wodonga TAFE chief executive Phil Paterson said he had not received a “formal proposal” for the site.
“A business proposal and feasibility study should be developed to determine the most suitable location for a veterans’ mental health and wellbeing centre, which may or may not be the former DECA site,” he said.
Mr Paterson said local, state and federal government agencies had first option to buy the property, in line with Victorian Government regulations, but none had expressed interest.
Ron Robertson has lived in Newborough since the 1970s, when the SECV relocated him and his home from the town of Yallourn so the coal underneath could be mined.
“For us, this was our area and we were put here; actually put up as a showpiece as to what they could do, what they did for Yallourn residents,” Mr Robertson said.
His street was full of former Yallourn residents and their homes and adjoins the paddocks which make up the DECA site.
Mr Robertson said the SECV had the land zoned as a public park so the former Yallourn residents could enjoy it without it being developed.
Ron Robertson wants the land used in a way that benefits the local community. (ABC Gippsland: Jarrod Whittaker)
He said he did not want to see it sold for housing, but supported the property being used for a veterans’ centre.
“Who could argue with that? That is a place that’s going to look after our veterans and give them meaning to their life — they’ll have a place to go and they’ll have people looking after them.
“I get quite emotional about that, and in every way that would be a beautiful outcome, so I couldn’t think of a better way of the land being used.”
In Parliament last year, Nationals Upper House MP Melina Bath asked Training and Skills Minister Gayle Tierney to support a feasibility study for the wellness centre.
Ms Bath said she wanted the Government to help the group secure the land before the study was carried out.
“It’s often well understood that the transition from military life back to civilian life can often be quite difficult,” she said.
“And statistics tell us that there’s certainly a higher level of mental health issues in our returned service personnel compared to the average population.”
Local councillor Sharon Gibson, whose ward includes the proposed site, also backs the project.
Ms Tierney referred the ABC’s request for comment to the Education Department, which noted the site was going through a “public expressions of interest process”.