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The announcement on the 28 June 2010 by the Minister for the Hunter, Ms Jodi McKay, that the NSW Government will maintain the historic James Fletcher site in public hands as a mental health facility presents Newcastle with a unique opportunity.

A combined effort from the mental health sector, heritage interests, Newcastle Council and State Government with the support of the business community and the general public can make the James Fletcher site a jewel in the City.

Mr Gionni Di Gravio, Chairman of Newcastle University’s Coal River Working Party, believes this announcement could mark the beginning of a new era for heritage sites in Newcastle.

“We are passionately involved in making sure that this site does not repeat the mistakes we have made with other significant properties such as the Hunter Street Post Office and Surf House”, Mr Di Gravio said.

“The key is to open up this long secluded site to the public, both to destigmatise mental health and to allow appreciation of the remarkable history of this seat of government, military barracks and, since 1871, a mental hospital.

“A plan has been presented to Hunter New England Area Health and the Minister for the Hunter outlining how social enterprises could assist young people with mental health issues and assist in enhancing the heritage value of the site.

Mr Di Gravio said “A number of other players in the Newcastle community have been approached and have committed to the overall plan. Church groups, youth services, mental health professionals business groups, the University and others have all agreed to assist in keeping the James Fletcher site busy and engaging with the community”.

“As heritage listing is finalised and Hunter New England Health moves ahead with its plans for the site, we look forward to a process of active engagement”.

As the first seat of Government in Newcastle, the James Fletcher site is the premier site of cultural capital in Newcastle’s history that encompasses the original seat of Government dating from 1804, the first government house and garden, convict coal workings (1814), parsonage (1819), military barracks (1838), parade ground, along with a range of asylum and hospital buildings (1871+).

“If this site is treated with the respect it deserves and if the focus is making the site an active part of the community, the will is there to show leadership in how heritage can add value to join the dots and make the connections. This is a unique opportunity to showcase how a common goal can deliver a benefit to the people of Newcastle, New South Wales and indeed Australia”, said Mr Di Gravio.

The Coal River Working Party is planning to meet with various groups to fully explain the concept plan and to seek creative input for a practical outcome.

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