Hopes are building Mackay's hidden veteran community could find a new home more than 15 years after the Mackay RSL club shut its doors to the public.

The giant slouch hat on Sydney St is a sore reminder of the central base Mackay's returned service men and women once called their own hub, and the support it afforded them.

Plans are progressing for part of a $200 million development on Mackay's riverfront to include that revived form of an RSL club that would give a social connection to the community while providing veterans access to support services.

 

Aerial views of ReNew Mackay's riverfront development proposal which incorporates plans for an administrative hub that could become the home of the Mackay RSL sub-branch. Picture: ReNew Mackay
Aerial views of ReNew Mackay's riverfront development proposal which incorporates plans for an administrative hub that could become the home of the Mackay RSL sub-branch. Picture: ReNew Mackay

 

The Daily Mercury is today launching the campaign Hub for our Heroes - asking the Mackay region to get behind two projects dedicated to helping our service men and women as well as our first responders.

One project is a social and welfare centre in town on the waterfront, the other a wellness hub at Kinchant Dam.

 

Mackay Daily Mercury has launched a campaign to find a Hub for Our Heroes.
Mackay Daily Mercury has launched a campaign to find a Hub for Our Heroes.

 

Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins said the central riverside location was ideal for the club's revival after the Sydney St venue closed its doors to the public in 2006.  

"We're confident enough that this will proceed," the Vietnam War veteran said.

"I've been known to go out on a limb in my day, but I think this is well worth having a real good dash at."

Mr Higgins said he was regularly asked why a city of Mackay's size lacked an RSL venue, with local veterans connected to the armed forces and those travelling through the region wanting to support it, and access services.

 

Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins looking out over the site where the new Mackay RSL is proposed to be built. Picture: Heidi Petith
Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins looking out over the site where the new Mackay RSL is proposed to be built. Picture: Heidi Petith Heidi Petith

The Sydney St hall shut its doors to the public after several years battling external forces including a lack of patronage, competition from other suburban clubs, and financial difficulties.

The Sarina RSL Club faced a similar protracted battle for survival but ultimately closed down in 2020.

Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins at the site where the new Mackay RSL is proposed to be built at the corner of Brisbane St and River St in the Waterfront Priority Development Area. Picture: Heidi Petith
Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins at the site where the new Mackay RSL is proposed to be built at the corner of Brisbane St and River St in the Waterfront Priority Development Area. Picture: Heidi Petith Heidi Petith

 

Mr Higgins said the Mackay club's closure was still keenly felt, more than 15 years on.

"A tremendous amount of the veterans were very, very upset and disappointed with what happened because (the RSL) was a very intricate part of our town," Mr Higgins said.

"Most towns in the country, their RSL is a focal point of socialising and interacting with people and remembering our fallen and our serving members.

"Young members coming home to Mackay whose family live here, one of the first places they head to is an RSL."
 

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Mackay Regional Council mayor Greg Williamson at the Anzac Day service at Jubilee Park in 2019.
Mackay Regional Council mayor Greg Williamson at the Anzac Day service at Jubilee Park in 2019.

 

"I know there are funds and moves by the RSL in particular to establish welfare centres but there are members in our corporate community in a push, particularly in our PDA (Mackay Waterfront Priority Development Area), for a facility that will provide those things.

"If we can bring that to fruition, it will make us proud because it's an area that since the closure of the RSL in Sydney St, the sub-branch has been without a home."

 

Karen May was among those who battled to keep the Sarina club open, and had volunteered as secretary and treasurer of the sub-branch before taking over the club's management with her husband John.

"I did that voluntarily to try and help keep the club alive and survive, and the same when we took over the management of the club," Mrs May said.

"It shouldn't be exclusive, it should be inclusive and a place where people from all walks of life and whatever association they have had with the services should feel comfortable and welcomed," she said.

"I don't think it needs to be connected to any particular building or place, a fresh start and an open mind is what's needed."

 

The former Sarina RSL Club on Central St, Sarina. Picture: Tara Miko
The former Sarina RSL Club on Central St, Sarina. Picture: Tara Miko Tara Miko

The Sarina saga stemmed back to at least 2010 when RSL Queensland acquired 51 per cent ownership of the club on request from the club to help pay its debt, which was then about $130,000.

The fractured relationship between the two entities landed in the Federal Court with the club eventually winning back control of the books and the operation.

But the debt had not been paid and increased from $130,000 to $800,000 - a figure too high to break down or repay without the support of the community.

The ATO was owed about $319,000 of that debt and it agreed to a $200 a week payment plan to reduce it, not including interest.

External factors including the Sarina Range closure and depressed sugar prices - and low patronage - was the death knell for the club paying it back.

In 2018, the club faced an ultimatum: pay the debt back in full or agree to $3700 a week repayments.

It closed in May 2020.

"What the veteran community wants, and needs, will be the key to its success," she said.

"That needs to be thought out and sounded out. The veteran community needs to be consulted.

"If there is going to be anything that is reborn out of this, community involvement and veteran involvement is paramount."

 

Ken Higgins: Vision to reboot Mackay RSL Club
Ken Higgins: Vision to reboot Mackay RSL Club

 

Ambiguity remains around whether the Sydney St building is on the heritage register, but Mr Higgins said the venue was not a viable option as inspectors deemed it landlocked and in need of structural repairs.

RSL Pioneer-Fitzroy-Highlands District president Barry Vains said RSL Queensland would support initiatives to connect veterans socially but the organisation did not fund gaming clubs.

He said the Sydney St hall was leased and the district had an obligation to the tenant, with no plans at present to change that arrangement, but RSL Queensland would support initiatives that addressed the social isolation of veterans and brought them into the community.

"RSL Queensland wouldn't be against something like that," he said.

 

Aerial views of ReNew Mackay's riverfront development which incorporates plans for an administrative hub that could become the home of the Mackay RSL sub-branch. Picture: ReNew Mackay
Aerial views of ReNew Mackay's riverfront development which incorporates plans for an administrative hub that could become the home of the Mackay RSL sub-branch. Picture: ReNew Mackay

 

"RSL Queensland is not in the business of funding gaming clubs and that sort of thing.

"One of the things with the RSL - and it doesn't only happen with the RSL but with others charities like Rotary - is membership is skewed towards the older veterans and we do have a challenge in the RSL to attract the younger veterans to our midst."

Mr Vains said RSL Queensland's 2025 strategy was "very much involved" in that ambition.

 

Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins at the site of the former Mackay RSL Club on Sydney St. Picture: Heidi Petith
Mackay RSL sub-branch president Ken Higgins at the site of the former Mackay RSL Club on Sydney St. Picture: Heidi Petith Heidi Petith

 

Mr Higgins said Mackay's estimated 2-3000 veterans and other community members such as retirees and families would provide the customer base for the relaunched River St club.

He believes the Department of Veterans' Affairs and ex-service organisations could also offset costs by renting part of the building.

He said he hoped to be enjoying a "coldie" at the club by Anzac Day 2023.

Mayor Greg Williamson puts his hand on his heart during the Anzac Day service at Jubilee Park in Mackay 2019.
Mayor Greg Williamson puts his hand on his heart during the Anzac Day service at Jubilee Park in Mackay 2019.

Cr Williamson said the Mackay community's support was clear on April 25 each year when thousands turned out to support Anzac Day.

"It goes against the grain a little bit not to have a home for the RSL," he said.



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