The town at the heart of world-famous Kakadu National Park is fast approaching a crossroads that will either see it revived to a "tourism destination in its own right" or demolished completely.
- A group representing Mirarr traditional owners put forward a draft plan to revive Jabiru
- It hopes stakeholders will sign off on a final plan within three to four months
- No government funding has yet been promised, but last year the chief minister said the town "would have a future"
But all signs point to the former, given traditional owners recently revealed draft plans for an extensive redevelopment.
Jabiru was built by Energy Resources Australia in 1982 to service the nearby Ranger Uranium Mine, on the condition that it would be returned to its "pre-development state" once the lease expired in 2021.
Yet that now makes little sense to many stakeholders, given Kakadu National Park's World Heritage listing for both natural and cultural values, and the Territory Government's recent campaign to "turbocharge tourism" in the NT.
The mining company released a social impact statement last year, which found there was widespread community support for the town to remain.
The Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, on behalf of the Mirarr traditional owners, compiled the draft plan to guide a transition from a mining to a tourism-based town — complete with a crocodile-free lake to swim in and a new town centre.
The corporation's chief executive Justin O'Brien wanted to see stakeholders, which included three tiers of government, the Northern Australian Land Council and ERA, sign off on a final plan within three to four months.
That would pave the way to securing tenure of the land for traditional owners and moving towards the town's revival.
The draft masterplan, which Mr O'Brien stressed was "quite an early piece of work", included a Kakadu Visitor Centre, an Aboriginal Cultural Museum Centre and an Arts and Cultural Space.
This would provide the framework for the town to become a "cultural, science and education research centre" and the infrastructure to build partnerships with universities.
But the key development was shifting the town centre and entry to show off views of the Arnhem Land escarpment and make better use of the town lake.
That would include having it 'croc-proofed' so people could swim in it, as Mr O'Brien had seen photos of people doing in the 80s.
"We need to reorient the sense of arrival to Jabiru," Mr O'Brien said.
"At the moment you come and you come to the back of all the shops — there's no real sense that you're in Kakadu National Park at all.
"It's just a matter of balancing the interests of the tourism industry and the traditional land owners of Kakadu in a sustainable and economically positive way."
The plan suggested the current central plaza be demolished or redeveloped as office space.
The Department of the Chief Minister's regional director for Jabiru John Bray said the plans made him confident Jabiru's future was "a sure bet".
"I think it's wonderful. When I fist saw [the masterplan] I was blown away and I think that's the sentiment across all parties getting behind this," Mr Bray said
Who's paying for this?
This week the Department of the Chief Minister was expected to receive the first phase of a Jabiru and Tourism Economic Study, which may provide an initial costs estimate for the plan.
However, Mr O'Brien said a final masterplan would need to be agreed to by all stakeholders before exact costings could be calculated.
He anticipated both private and public sector investments would make up the eventual funding mix.
"I can't give you all the answers today. But I can give you the most important answer — Jabiru will live and thrive beyond 2021," he said.
Mining company ERA must rehabilitate the mine, but it is not yet clear if funds that would have been directed to rehabilitating the town would instead be used to sustain it.
A spokeswoman said the company was "committed to undertaking rehabilitation in accordance with its obligations".
While Litchfield National Park recently received $12.1 million to "turbocharge tourism", Mr Bray said Jabiru was not ready to use funding from that pool in the way guidelines stipulated.
In concluding his speech at Mahbilil last year, Mr Gunner said in the future Jabiru "will be — as it should be — an Aboriginal-led town".
Mr O'Brien said that final promise was particularly important to traditional owners, who hoped that when the masterplan was decided they would receive security of tenure of the land from the Commonwealth Government.
"So the land at Jabiru is not Aboriginal land, it's Commonwealth freehold vested in the director of national parks," he said.
"The long-held aspiration of the traditional owners is for their land rights to be recognised here and for the town to be scheduled Aboriginal land.
"They've made the commitment at a ministerial level [to providing this security of tenure] but again carts and horses, you need to know what you're negotiating."
In its 2017 annual report, released on February 12 this year, ERA said it would advocate for early resolution on future governance arrangements in order to provide certainty for Jabiru.
Tourist numbers dwindling
Since 2008 visitation numbers to Kakadu National Park slid by more than 40,000.
That year 228,899 tourists came to the park — whereas in 2017 there were only 187,756, according to data from Parks Australia.
Yet in 2016, and 300 kilometres to the west, Litchfield National Park logged almost twice that number — 367,700 — and the same year Katherine's Nitmiluk National Park saw 268,800, compared to 235,700 in 2012.
Mr Bray conceded that tourists "may well be certainly surprised" to find themselves in the tired mining town of Jabiru, upon visiting the world-famous Kakadu National Park.
He was confident that if Jabiru was transformed into a tourist town that would spark an uplift, not only to Kakadu but even to Darwin.
Mr O'Brien pointed out that Jabiru's limited lifespan may be partly to blame for the falling visitation rates to Kakadu National Park.
That's because some banks refused to loan to businesses based in a town that's stamped with an expiry date — preventing newcomers from getting the capital to invest in the town and current businesses from growing.
"At the moment no one is lending to any businesses out at Jabiru because of the short duration of the head lease," Mr O'Brien said.
"They need security of tenure, they need to have some serious lease against which they can loan."
When the Kakadu Bakery closed its doors two years ago, owner Erwin Ladtke had tried to sell the business for 15 months, but said he believed prospective buyers had failed to get financing from the bank, because of the expiring town lease.
Nonetheless, Kakadu took out gold in the Qantas 2017 Australian Tourism Award's 'major tourists attractions' category.
Bob McDonald, director of Kakadu Air which ran scenic flights over the national park, was especially positive.
"I'm encouraged by the changes, they're timely changes and they will benefit all," he said.
Senator Nigel Scullion and the Northern Land Council was contacted for comment, but neither responded before the deadline.
Topics: community-and-society, environment, national-parks, government-and-politics, mining-rural, community-development, regional-development, indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander, land-rights, jabiru-0886