A Southern Highlands residents’ group has criticised the NSW Government for selling the historic Berrima Jail without adequate community consultation.
The Jail, described by the Berrima Residents Association as the “jewel in the Southern Highlands crown”, was sold this month for $7 million to Joseph Wehbe who runs sports management company the Blue Sox group.
President of the association Eric Savage said the group’s criticism was with how the NSW Government completed the sale, rather than with whom it sold it to.
He said the residents’ group had been in talks with the Wingecarribee Shire Council and the Southern Highlands Chamber of Commerce about their “vision” for the historic Jail ever since it had been deemed surplus to requirements by the NSW Government about two years ago.
“We don’t have a problem with the developer, we have a problem with the lack of community consultation,” Mr Savage said.
“In fact, we have much in common with the developer when it comes to a vision for the Jail.
“In a statement on 20 May, the developer said its intention was to ‘share with the local community its initial thoughts and vision for the site’ and ensured that ‘any re-imagining of the site’s future will be sensitive to all aspects of heritage’.”
When expressions of interest were called for the site in October last year, the association launched a community buyback campaign for the Jail with support from the Chamber of Commerce and the Council.
It also launched a petition which was to be presented to the NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts, for the Jail to remain in community hands rather than fall into “purely profit-making hands”.
It needed 5000 signatures by April, but the Berrima Jail buyback campaign website shows only 608 signatures.
In a statement, Mr Wehbe said he had been a member of the Southern Highlands community for 20 years and held a strong passion for the region and respect for its heritage.
He said although planning for the site was in its early stages, he wanted to create a “thriving and lively venue in the heart of Berrima that had a focus on attracting and bringing people together with immersive experiences, while being respectful and supportive of the history and heritage significance of the site, which we will maintain and enhance”.
He said his vision for the site was based on the desire to maintain a role as guardian of the centre, while bringing to the region a new place to work, visit, stay and enjoy.
Announcing the sale, Minister Roberts said the site would be re-invented as a “unique hotel and entertainment precinct”, describing the sale price of $7 million as an outstanding result.
“The proposal incorporates a boutique hotel whilst retaining the beautiful grounds of the estate, and will include cafe, restaurant, bar and community event areas and spaces which will cater for small business opportunities such as antiques and book shops, personal services, art galleries, library and museum,” he said.
He said the Blue Sox group would work with the community, Indigenous groups and the local Aboriginal Land Council on collaborative ideas to preserve and celebrate the wider site’s heritage.
The state heritage-listed sandstone buildings on the site had the highest protections in place and would be protected, he said.
Berrima Jail was officially retired in 2020 after being deemed surplus to NSW Department of Corrective Services requirements.
The 1.9-ha site in the heart of the village was built by convicts in the 1830s and opened nine years later.
It is also known as the site where one of Australia’s first serial killers, Berrima axe murderer John Lynch, was hanged in 1842.
Known as one of NSW’s toughest jails, it was used as an internment camp for German prisoners during World War I and was later rebuilt in 1940, again using prison labour. In 2001, it was given a new life as Berrima Correctional Centre, a jail for women.
Apart from the 60-cell jail, the site also includes two historic cottages, a tennis court, commercial kitchen, watch tower, guard offices and commercial space.