It is hard to believe this is the island that became the nation’s hedonistic playground thanks to the “get wrecked” on Great Keppel advertising campaign in the 1980s.
The Queensland resort that generated international headlines with its ban on guests aged over 35 is in decay as a struggle over the future of Great Keppel plays out, involving a wealthy Sydney businessman, the Mr Fix-It of Queensland Labor politics, the island’s traditional owners and $40million.
No wonder the dollar signs flashed when developer Terry Agnew laid eyes on Great Keppel, an idyllic island with 17 white sandy beaches just 30 minutes by boat from the mainland, making it more accessible than any other Great Barrier Reef destination.
Mr Agnew’s company, Tower Holdings, snapped up the Great Keppel Island Resort for $16.5 million before shutting it down in February last year, retrenching 110 staff, with the intention of building a $2.5 billion luxury resort as part of a 20-year plan that would include the construction of three 250-bed hotels, two 18-hole championship golf courses, 2600 residential lots and a 500-berth marina.
The financially troubled resort had plenty of potential but was never able to recover from a youth-oriented marketing strategy that is now discredited. Former deputy premier Terry Mackenroth was hired by Mr Agnew as a consultant for the project.
Mr Mackenroth opened useful doors. Meetings were arranged between Tower executives, the then premier Peter Beattie, Mr Mackenroth’s successor as deputy premier, Anna Bligh, and other state ministers.
In addition to the resort, Mr Agnew won control over most of the island by buying out its main competition, Keppel Haven, and securing title to the so-called Lot 21, an 875ha recreational lease.
Mr Agnew also dearly wanted 170ha of land that was granted to the indigenous Woppaburra Land Trust in April 2007 by state government – four months after a Mackenroth-organised meeting between Tower executives, Mr Beattie and Ms Bligh.
Ms Bligh, Mr Mackenroth, and Mr Agnew were all in attendance at an elaborate handing-over ceremony at the resort. The land claim over the prime crown land predated the involvement of Mr Mackenroth, who quit politics in 2005, but the trust was impressed by how quickly things moved when he signed up with Tower Holdings.
The trust had been vigorously wined and dined by the company, which paid for a Woppaburra office in nearby Rockhampton and hired as a consultant Bob Muir, a traditional claimant. “I believed that co-operating with the company was an opportunity for our people to move forward,” Mr Muir says now.
The company flew 40 trustees to Brisbane and put them up in the Sofitel Hotel. As some Aborigines arrived at the hotel, they saw Mr Beattie and other ministers leaving.
Tower Holdings was gobsmacked when after all its efforts and expense, the Woppaburra community spurned its offer of $11 million for a 99-year lease over their land.
Canberra lawyer George Villaflor, who had been advising the Woppaburra Trust, says a Tower Holdings executive accused him of “pissing $6 million of company money against the wall”.
He says the state Government has much to answer for about its dealings with the project.
“You have to wonder what the current Premier was doing at the handing-over ceremony when she had been at two meetings with the developers and knew very well what they were up to.”
The Aboriginal land on Great Keppel includes Long Beach, a glorious stretch of sand fronting a coral reef-fringed lagoon.
Behind the beach is a midden where the remnants of Aboriginal feasts of shellfish spanning 5000 years of indigenous settlement are visible.
Now the trust says the five families descended from the original inhabitants are willing to sell for $8 million each, or $5 million plus a house and block of land for each family.
Jessie Keppel-Ross was the last of the Woppaburra to be removed from the island by the state, in 1912. Her grandson, Vincent Singleton, is trust chairman.
The Woppaburra today live as far afield as Perth and Cairns. Mr Singleton says the community is broke: “Our trust account has a few dollars in it.”
The Woppaburra want to talk with Tower or any other developer. “We don’t want another Hamilton Island, so any development has to protect the environment,” Mr Singleton says.
His new offer puts Tower Holdings in a bind. The company’s Lot 21 lease expires next April, and the state Government has indicated it will not be renewed, with the land likely to be protected as an environmental reserve. The Government received hundreds of submissions opposing the development.
However, government sources say the renewal of Tower’s lease has not been ruled out, with the company putting together a scaled-down version of its plan.
The company fears that if it is seen to be again talking to the Aborigines, the Government is less likely to give way on Lot 21.
George Villaflor says that notwithstanding Mr Singleton’s offer, many of the Woppaburra would oppose a sale. “It requires the unanimous support of all 40 trustees and many wouldn’t sell if the price was $100 million.”
Today, the resort that gained notoriety as the venue for alcohol and drug-fuelled holidays, is a shadow of its former self. Locked away behind wire fencing, its swimming pools are filling with sand as tropical vegetation reclaims the landscape.
The resort’s former competition, the nearby Keppel Haven, reopened last month after Tower pulled out of the sales contract.
“The attitude of Tower was to shut everything down while they worked towards their big project,” says Keppel Haven manager Jo-Anne Pitt.
by: Greg Roberts
From: The Australian
May 26, 2009 12:00AM