Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester has toured the proposed site for the $5 million Veterans' Wellbeing Centre in Nowra.
Minister Chester was joined by Senator for NSW Jim Molan, Gilmore MP Fiona Phillips, RSL LifeCare chair Andrew Condon, veterans services general manager Nicki Young, executive general manager property Tim Tait, RSL NSW chair Sophie Ray and the president of the Nowra RSL Sub-Branch Robert Grant.
New, more detailed, concept plans and artists impressions were released and before anyone jumps in, yes, the proposed building will be two stories, with undercroft parking, street level access and a lift.
Which was certainly a sticking point and something that was pointed out by readers when the announcement was made and initial plans released late last month.
Mr Chester said the facility was "a fantastic partnership between RSL, RSL LifeCare and the Department of Veterans' Affairs".
"We know there is more than 3000 veterans locally who will benefit from a new wellbeing centre and we want to work with the community to ensure we are building services where people need them," he said.
"By and large our veterans leave the defence force and go on to either very successful retirement or new careers. But some need extra support - it could be support in finding a job, it could be support for residential accommodation and even mental wellbeing.
"We need to make sure services are provided when and where our veterans need them - this is a great partnership between the Nowra community, the RSL and the Australian Government."
We're not going to dictate from Canberra what the facilities look like. It will be a matter of working with the community to make sure the services are appropriate to the community and deliver the most benefits possible for the local area.Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester
The purpose built facility is one of six to be constructed around the country veterans, with Minister Chester saying the community and veterans would have an input on their uses.
"We're not going to dictate from Canberra what the facilities look like," he said.
"It will be a matter of working with the community to make sure the services are appropriate to the community and deliver the most benefits possible for the local area."
He said the $5 million cost would provide an additional layer of support for veterans.
"Not just for veterans in Nowra but the broader community," he said.
"It's a real boost for veterans and their families. Part of a network of six centres being built across the nation at the moment, but we won't be telling the community what they need to build. It's about working with the local community to get local solutions to local issues."
He said the plan was to build the promised six centres and see how they work.
"We want to work with the veterans' community to see how they work, what benefits they can deliver and see if there is need for more," he said.
"We want to make sure we can provide services so veterans can access them when they need them but also make sure they are responsive to local needs.
"I have no doubt there will be more demands for these wellbeing centres but we need to get the first six up and running."
He said Nowra was a perfect location for a wellbeing centre, describing it as a "garrison town".
"It's a perfect location, you've got defence facilities nearby and not surprising a lot of our veterans chose to retire here. It's a beautiful part of the world, so they chose to stay in the region once they get out of the defence force, so there is a real need in the community. We recognise there is more than 3000 veterans in the community and this is a chance for us to provide additional services we believe will make a difference in their lives."
I have no doubt there will be more demands for these wellbeing centres but we need to get the first six up and running.Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester
He said the chosen Nowra location was worked through with RSL and RSL LifeCare.
"It's an available location and in a central location in the town and through consultation with the local veteran community has been identified as an ideal location," he said.
"We believe it will be something easy to access, central to the South Coast and Illawarra region."
Senator Molan, who he himself served for 40 years and has travelled the world looking at veterans' services, said the purpose built Nowra facility would be fantastic.
"Australian is the best country in the world for veterans," he said "but we could always do better and that's what we are going to do with the centre.
"Local initiatives and local leadership.
"The vast majority of veterans who get out of the military make a successful life and go on. But many veterans come out with skills that aren't immediately transferable. Many veterans come out with injuries.
"One of the most dangerous groups of veterans for not making it back into civilian life are those who injure themselves while serving and are compulsorily retired or discharged.
"They are one of the groups DVA is very sensitive towards and provide as much assistance as they can.
"But to any veteran, don't ever accept the first decision. Keep at it, persistence when you are dealing with all of these bureaucracies and the DVA is a bureaucracy like every department, keep at it and demand your rights.
"I think this centre is great for Nowra. This is a big area, we know there is at least 3000 vets here that DVA deals with on a daily basis.
"That's a good start and this is a great location for a centre."
He said the implications of someone making the transition from military to civilian life can impact largely on their family.
"This centre will cater for veterans and their families," he said.
"Eighty per cent of veterans who transition to civilian life have a job within nine months," he said.
"Those that don't, like many in our community, need the community assistance and this is an important part of it."
Gilmore MP Fiona Phillips said it's great to see the Veterans' Wellness Centre progressing.
"It's lovely to see the plans and the project moving forward," she said.
"Our veterans are so important. We have HMAS Albatross and Creswell here, we have a very large veterans' community. Around 5000 veterans and their families in the area.
"It couldn't be more important to have this centre to make sure our veterans are being looked after."
"Exciting project for veterans"
RSL LifeCare chair, Andrew Condon said it was an exciting project.
"We are very keen to build communities wherever we have a presence and this is a really exciting opportunity for us. We get to work with the local community, a building consortium and we're already getting some great feedback," he said.
"We've worked with the local service organisations but also local health providers and we are already getting direct input from local firms that want to be involved in this project."
He said RSL LifeCare's preference is to use local providers.
"It makes sense on so many levels to use locals," he said.
"Particularly as we want to be part of that community and invest in that community."
While RSL LifeCare is still awaiting for council approval for the project it is hoped work on the centre will be underway by mid next year.
"We certainly expect to employ more people during the construction phase than the operational phase in terms of direct jobs, but the local community is going to benefit from this," he said.
"We're looking at a continuance of services, particularly in the veterans' space. We look for a holistic approach to veterans' lifecycle. We have traditionally focused at the senior end of that lifecycle, providing aged care, retirement living service. In more recent years we've branched out into veterans' homeless services, equine program and now through a recent acquisition of RSL DefenceCare we are getting into specific advocacy programs for veterans, including younger veterans.
It is a real opportunity to provide a trigger point to get veterans access to other services and we see this as having the potential to roll out into other centres.RSL LifeCare chair, Andrew Condon
"One thing we are looking at, particularly in areas that are garrison towns, we're interested in exploring with local ex-service organisations the local sub-branches is things like transition support for younger veterans who are coming into these communities."
He said a veteran can be anyone from "a 20 something year old" who has "done six or nine years service" through to someone "and we still have them, who have served in the Second World War".
"It is quite a diverse range so we need to have a diverse range of capabilities and support services," he said.
"We see this centre as being a gateway to many of those services. We won't be able to provide all those services, but those services generally exist within the community in some fashion. Some of the difficulties for veterans is actually accessing those.
"Something like a wellbeing centre provides a trigger point for veterans to find out about those services. We will provide facilities for those service providers to provide some of those services on site on a book-in basis or we will refer out to where those services exist.
"In many ways this is an experiment but we feel positive about it - younger veterans are generally leaving defence and staying close to the garrison towns like Nowra, Wagga, Albury, around Newcastle and Sydney of course.
"It is a real opportunity to provide a trigger point to get access to other services and we see this as having the potential to roll out into other centres."
While waiting for approval RSL LifeCare will be running the facility through rented facilities, with work expected to start at the Wallace Street site by the middle of next year.
"There will be easy access to the centre - plenty of car parking underneath and a lift to the top level - it will also be accessible from street level. It will be able to support and cater for people of all ages and mobility and there will be family facilities as well," Mr Condon said.
Wallace Street location "ticks all the boxes"
RSL NSW chair Sophie Ray said the organisation was excited about the centre which had come through a long process of community consultation.
"RSL NSW is very happy to partner with LifeCare. We do a lot of work with them and this is a really great outcome," she said.
"There has been a lot of input from our local community and our local veterans. It's all about them. It's not about someone telling veterans what they need, it's about listening to them and building something that meets the need.
"We have a lot of sub-branches locally who work really hard and work in with other services in our local community.
Our community is spread over 100 kiloemtres. We have a lot of young veterans who don't engage and the whole point of this centre is to give them a way of engaging.Chair of RSL NSW Sophie Ray
"But we have a challenge - our community here is spread over 100 kiloemtres. We have a lot of young veterans who don't engage and the whole point of this centre is to give them a way of engaging. A way that suits them better - we will also have outreach so we can cover some of that wider community through the Illawarra and further down the South Coast."
She said the selected Wallace Street site was one of a number of local locations put forward for the wellness centre, but was chosen because it "ticked all the boxes".
"There was a rigorous business case put forward for each of those locations, but this one best ticked all the boxes, met the need. Obviously with LifeCare having the expertise they have and already having this land it made sense to go with them," she said.
"We and LifeCare are still working closely with the other proponents who were interested in doing things on other sites and we are very hopeful they will come on board at this site here."