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21 March, 2022

White elephant: $2 million animal welfare facility sits empty

Described as a palace for the cats and dogs of Weipa, this multi-million dollar vet clinic and animal welfare centre was meant to be a game-changer for Cape York.

By Matt Nicholls

THERE is no single reason why this mega project sits empty on the outskirts of Weipa’s industrial area.

A mixture of mismanagement, personal circumstances, outside influences and a budget blowout have all contributed to the downfall of this facility.

Good people with good intentions are heavily involved with the project, which makes it such a sensitive subject in a small community.

But the harsh reality is that this project was largely paid for by the taxpayer and the people of Weipa through the Cape Animal Protection Shelter, best known as CAPS.

But before diving into the problem, it’s worth going back to the beginning.

Creating a purpose-built animal welfare centre was the dream of Tonia May, a founder of CAPS and its long-serving president.

For years she toiled away at raising funds to support animal welfare in the community, as well as building the organisation’s reputation in the region.

It was tireless and often thankless work, although she was duly awarded Weipa’s Citizen of the Year honour in 2020.

This was on the back of the promise of federal funding to build her dream – a vet clinic and animal welfare facility to service not just the pets of Weipa, but those of the surrounding communities of Mapoon, Napranum and Aurukun.

In March 2019, the federal government awarded $1.5 million to CAPS for the project, which would be supported by in-kind donations from the likes of Goodline, Rio Tinto and other local organisations.

But in the two years since, the project has de-railed. The exterior of the buildings are complete, but the insides are unfinished, while there has yet to be an animal treated or kennelled at the site.

THE FACILITY

A RANGE of buildings on the Evans Landing site should provide an array of services.

There is the vet clinic, which is self-explanatory.

CAPS has constructed an administrative building for its volunteer base, which could also be used by other non-profits, while out the back is a boarding kennel for dogs.

There is also an air-conditioned building to be used as a cattery.

On the right-hand side is a cottage, built as a residence for the vet or an on-site caretaker.

The cottage is currently occupied by a couple who are looking after the site.

There is also a small paddock for livestock should they need vet care, while a shed has been built to house a crematorium for pets.

It is an amazing place.

The problem for CAPS is that it can’t get a vet to move in and it has yet to start up the boarding kennel business, which would provide the charity with much-needed income.

Opening up the boarding kennels would be a good start, says WTA chairman Michael Rowland.

LEADERSHIP VOID

CAPS has been rocked by several changes of leadership in the past 18 months, with a fourth president set to be elected soon. A major family issue forced Tonia May to take a back seat and she has since left Weipa.

The reins were handed to long-time CAPS foster carer Karen Ogilvie, who also left town due to personal reasons.

The next president to be elected was Julia Dodd, who has since left town to take up work in Gladstone.

Ms Dodd is still technically the CAPS president and will be replaced at the next AGM.

Cape York Weekly rang her for an update on the facility, only to be told “no comment” and was promptly disconnected.

Ms May was also contacted for her opinion on the progress of the facility, however she did not respond to phone calls or messages.

VET STAND-OFF

ONE reason why there is no vet occupying the facility is the lack of cooperation with the existing Weipa-based veterinarian business.

For years, CAPS had lambasted Tableland Veterinary Service for not providing a full-time clinic.

That has since changed, with a full-time vet now living in Weipa, but it meant CAPS tried to find an alternative vet to fill the new clinic, either competing with Tableland Veterinary Service or forcing them out of town.

Cape York Weekly understands CAPS had its heart set on Annabelle Olsson from Boongarry Veterinary Services in Cairns.

But that fell over when pressure was put on CAPS to put the vet clinic out to tender.

“Everyone came in with the best of intentions but the whole thing has been managed poorly,” said Member for Leichhardt Warren Entsch, who fought to get the federal funding for the facility.

“There was one person running the show and then she left. She was doing everything she could to exclude Tableland Vets from the process.

“That wasn’t appropriate as the funds were not given so they could compete with an existing service.

“I’m not trying to have a go at Tonia because she did a great job over a long period of time, but it was clear that she didn’t want the existing vet in town to be a part of the new facility.”

Mr Entsch said he drove past the CAPS facility each time he visited Weipa and will again drop in this week when in town.

“It breaks my heart to see it sitting empty,” the MP said.

“They have built a palace. It’s just too big at the moment with no vet there.

“They need to carve it up a bit and get someone else in to use the space.”

Weipa Town Authority chair Michael Rowland said there had been a number of failings in the process to construct the facility and find a suitable tenant to run the vet clinic.

“This was built without a business plan, without a vet to come in and run it and without a long-term strategy,” he said.

“It’s very disappointing that all this effort has been put in to build a great facility for Weipa but it is not being utilised.”

Mr Rowland was on a panel of six independent people as part of the tender process to determine who the vet should be.

Others on the selection panel included Catherine Kennedy from Goodline and Rio Tinto’s Fiona Kruger.

Sources told Cape York Weekly that the tender process was flawed with an obvious bias against Tableland Veterinary Service.

Mr Rowland would not comment about the actual process due to confidentiality.

However, the WTA chairman said with no vet service signed up to use the clinic, it was time for CAPS to patch things up with the existing veterinarian business.

“There needs to be someone independent to step in and mediate an outcome,” he said.

Interestingly, the CAPS building is outside of the Weipa town boundary, meaning it is on the Rio Tinto mining lease in Cook Shire Council territory.

Hopes were high in October 2020 as construction of the facility took shape.

TABLELAND RESPONSE

A BITTER taste is still left in the mouth of Tableland Veterinary Service in regards to the tender process, but the business says it is still willing to talk terms with CAPS.

One problem is the changing of the goal posts. When CAPS put the vet clinic out for tender, it offered up a completed building that was fully fitted out.

However, the inside is far from finished and estimates range from $200,000 to $500,000 to complete the internals.

“We are still in discussions and trying to sort out what the new reality is,” said Tableland Veterinary Service director Mick Ruppin.

“If there can be a match we would love to be a part of it.

“There was a tender process to lease a completed building but unfortunately the building hasn’t been completed.”

A CAPS insider said it had offered Tableland Veterinary Service a three-year contract to take control of the vet clinic, but on the proviso they pay for the fit-out. However, that appears to put the two organisations at an impasse, especially based on the length of the deal.

“We need to go back to the drawing board to see who funds the completion of the building,” Mr Ruppin said.

It’s believed CAPS not only want Tableland Veterinary Service to pay for the fit-out but have asked for more than $50,000 a year in rent.

Mr Ruppin wouldn’t comment on figures but said he still hoped an arrangement could be struck.

“I definitely think there is a chance,” he said.

“It would be a more comfortable place to work out of than our current facility, although we have just made a big investment there.

“If the facility can be brought up to standard it could be a really nice precinct.”

THE FUTURE

THE ball is in CAPS’ court and how the facility gets used will be up to the charity.

Its first priority must be to elect a Weipa-based president and then determine how it moves forward in regards to negotiating terms for the facility. Mr Entsch said he believed that Tableland Veterinary Service was the best-placed operator for the facility, with decades of local knowledge and all the town’s pets on their books.

“I’m not privy to what CAPS is asking but this was public money that paid for the facility and it needs to be used,” he said.

“If three years is all they are offering as a lease, then that is disappointing because as a business you would want longer-term security.”

Mr Rowland said while CAPS was trying to sort out the vet clinic, the boarding kennels and cattery should be opened up.

“It would be a great source of income for CAPS, who do a lot of great work in looking after dogs and cats,” he said.

“There are so many people in town who would use the kennels as flying out your pet is expensive and finding a dog-sitter can be difficult.”

Mr Ruppin said it would be business as usual at Tableland Veterinary Service but would happily engage with CAPS if a fair deal could be agreed upon.

“We haven’t ruled anything out but we are a business,” he said.


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