The owner of Kenmore Hospital can be fined a maximum $1.1 million and/or be jailed for six months if legal action against the company is successful.
Minister responsible for Heritage Don Harwin announced this week that he had directed "urgent legal action" against the owner, Australia China International, over "a deplorable lack of care" of many of the 70 buildings.
Mr Harwin said the company had not acted after Heritage NSW issued a section 120 order on November 26. It followed a fire, lit by teenage intruders, that destroyed former female ward 15 on October 16. The order required the company to repair the site, secure the fire-damaged building and prevent access to the grounds by trespassers.
The Minister's directive came as Goulburn Mulwaree Council general manager Warwick Bennett said the state government should buy back the 75-hectare site, after selling it for $3 million in the early 2000s.
He joined Heritage NSW representatives, senior council planning staff, Goulburn police and the owner's representative, conservation architect Alf Lester, on a site inspection of the state-heritage listed former psychiatric facility on Monday. Mr Lester worked on a Kenmore master plan for former owner, LAJC Energy Pty Ltd in 2011/12.
Mr Bennett said the tour offered him an opportunity to highlight Kenmore's "true significance and magnificent buildings" and to urge action on its conservation.
"The only way that this site will be saved is if the state government buys it back and works with our community, including interests group, to develop it," he said.
"...It looks disowned and I think it's time to take really strong action. The council and community can't let it deteriorate any further and it will while ever it's in foreign ownership. I don't believe there's enough passion to maintain it as a heritage significant site."
On Wednesday, Heritage NSW will start erecting security fencing around the fire-damaged structure and the inner core of Walter Liberty Vernon-designed buildings. It will foot the cost and endeavour to reclaim the money from the company.
That's the minimum in Mr Bennett's mind. The heritage listing requires owners to maintain minimum standards of maintenance and care. He said he had written three times to the owner, Xiao Liang Wen and son, Ben, outlining the council's concerns.
But the GM has also drafted broad plans for Kenmore's development in an effort to achieve action.
"I think there is an opportunity to upgrade all of the premises at very little cost," Mr Bennett said.
His proposal is based on retention of the main precinct, the area known as 'The Forest' and the former cricket oval. A large section of the remainder could be developed into residential and funds used to upgrade the more significant core buildings.
The plan also suggests selling the former nurses quarters on the corner of Wollondilly Avenue, along with cottages fronting Taralga Road.
Mr Bennett proposes an arts and culture precinct at the rear and stretching over to around the cricket oval.
"It would make a great arts and cultural precinct," he said.
"If it was turned into one, the council could even move its art gallery out there. We shouldn't close our eyes to any option."
Mr Bennett said the council was receiving "positive vibes" from Heritage NSW authorities that such compromises were needed if the main buildings were to be preserved. He argued this had been successfully done at the nearby Joseph's Gate residential subdivision, with the centrepiece, a former girls orphanage, had been conserved.
He told The Post he didn't "swallow" the company's statements that COVID-19 had delayed work at Kenmore.
"There has been a huge opportunity in the last five years to do the heritage work required as well as plans," he said.
"I don't think the owner is committed to the place. It's a disgrace and I think the company needs to understand its importance."
Grass growing "three to four feet high" in places also posed a fire hazard in coming months, Mr Bennett said.
The Post has tried unsuccessfully to contact the company for comment.
Meantime, former Kenmore Museum curator and employee of 39 years, Leone Morgan, said she would be happier about the site's future when she saw meaningful action.
"I'm sure greater use could be made of it if the government owned it, in a similar fashion to Bloomfield Hospital at Orange," she said.
"Because some of the buildings are separated from the main core, they could be knocked down and the land developed."
Ms Morgan despaired that some of the more significant structures, such as the 1890s former medical superintendent's residence, the gatehouse and two houses in between, had "gone to rack and ruin."
Goulburn MP Wendy Tuckerman said the government had no plans to acquire the site "at this time."
"While due process must be undertaken, I will continue to work closely with Heritage NSW and Council and remain strongly committed to ensuring the preservation and long term future of Kenmore Hospital Precinct," she said.
Do you have something to say about this issue? Send a letter to the editor. Click here for the Goulburn Post
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.