APVMA selects disputed former Armidale Club site as its new Armidale home

A disputed site at the centre of an unsolved arson mystery and possible legal action will be the new home of the pesticides authority in Armidale.

Agriculture Minister David Littleproud and Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority chief executive Chris Parker on Monday named 91 Beardy Street, where the Armidale Club stood before a suspicious fire tore through it in September 2016, will host the agency's new building. 

Designs for the APVMA's new building at 91 Beardy Street and 102 Taylor Street, Armidale. Photo: APVMA

Designs for the APVMA's new building at 91 Beardy Street and 102 Taylor Street, Armidale. Photo: APVMA

The government has chosen the site, where 150 staff are expected to work by mid-2019, despite a live argument as former club owner-manager Kate Richards presses on with a claim her 25-year lease there remains and plans legal action. 

Queensland- and Victoria-based developer Stirloch Group have won the contract to build a two-storey office at 91 Beardy Street and 102 Taylor Street, and the APVMA has signed a 15-year lease with the company for its space in the building, flagging possible extensions to come. 

"This is a significant milestone in the APVMA's relocation from Canberra to Armidale," Dr Parker said.

Richards says she couldn't restart her business after the 2016 fire, and that the owners told her the building was uninsured and couldn't be rebuilt.

Her claim that she still has a 25-year lease on the site, signed in July 2015, could complicate the deal for the new building in a relocation project for the APVMA already gripped by controversy.

Property owner Gary Burgess, who owns it with his son Greg, would not comment on the bid when approached by Fairfax Media in February.

Richards says she knew nothing about the club site being a possible new home for the authority until contacted by The Canberra Times.

Owner Kate Richards, manager Courtney Parker and owner Allen St James inside the Armidale Club in late 2016 after it was destroyed by fire. Photo: Madeline Link

Owner Kate Richards, manager Courtney Parker and owner Allen St James inside the Armidale Club in late 2016 after it was destroyed by fire. Photo: Madeline Link

She has spent 18 months fighting the loss of her business and, after waiting for the coroner's report on the fire this month, she now plans to sue Burgess for loss of profits and failing to insure the building.

A coronial inquest into The Armidale Club's demise was inconclusive, determining in February it fell to arson but failing to find a culprit. 

While the police settled on a chief suspect - an Armidale security guard who shot himself the next day - town coroner Michael Holmes described the man's suicide as "the matter of real coincidence", saying his death was related to "unresolved personal issues".

There was no evidence tying the guard directly to the fire, the coroner said.

Richards says there were rumours someone had drawn up development plans for her site before the fire. She says a group of men were at the site the day after the fire and told her they were valuing it.

The Canberra Times does not suggest the fire was connected to the authority's bid. The Coalition's plan to move the authority was a promise at the July 2016 election. It engaged contractors JLL on September 6, 2016 to find new offices in Armidale. The order to move wasn't made until November 2016, two months after the fire.

The APVMA's chosen Armidale site is at the centre of a dispute. Photo: APVMA

The APVMA's chosen Armidale site is at the centre of a dispute. Photo: APVMA

Mr Littleproud confirmed last week the pesticides authority would still move to Armidale, despite calls from Labor for the Coalition to renege after the resignation of the project's champion Barnaby Joyce from the Nationals leadership.

The pesticide authority's entry into New England was marred by controversy with accusations that Mr Joyce was pork-barreling in moving the agency to his electorate, and a consultants report finding no material economic advantages to support the relocation.

Staff left the agency after the government ordered it to relocate, and the move attracted more criticism when its staff were found working in a McDonald's early last year.

Fifteen public servants, eight of them locals, are in temporary digs shared with Centrelink at 246 Beardy Street while the new office is commissioned.