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Hopes are rising among Hanmer Springs residents that the empty Soldiers’ Block at the former Queen Mary Hospital site may soon become a community hub. Robyn Bristow reports.

Hanmer Springs residents need a place to nurture themselves, for elderly people to go, and where the community can find activities to share, local resident Sally McDonald says.

She says the Soldiers’ Block at the former Queen Mary Hospital site is the ideal building to provide a haven for the community.

She is excited over the response from the community to a call for expressions of interest in reopening the block and hopes her dream of seeing it come to life again may not be too far away.

The latest push to find tenants and groups interested in using it follows a Soldiers’ Block steering committee, led by local Hurunui District councillor Jason Fletcher, calling a public meeting in January to gauge whether community groups, organisations and businesses might be interested in moving into the many spaces in the historic building.

The committee is also keen to get support from anyone with a passion for the national icon to help get the building functioning.

The block was built in 1916 to care for returned soldiers suffering shell shock and other war-related illnesses. Its 100th anniversary was marked in June 2016.

Sally envisages a community hub where groups, clubs, mothers’ groups, a Men’s Shed, a toy library, music, theatre, singing, and arts and crafts interests could find a home.

She says it could also act as a Civil Defence centre, provide a great space for a cafe, a wedding and conference centre, for school groups, small businesses and offices.

“Let’s bring us all together in one place.” she says.

Sally appreciates the need for anchor tenants to keep the project alive, but says community spaces are desperately needed.

“It doesn’t just have to be about tourism. It can be about the community wanting to nurture itself,” says Sally, who is getting impatient to see the project realised.

“I started this with a couple of others back in 2012. We put in submissions to the Hurunui District Council then but we really didn’t get anything back.

“There is lots of community passion about it. I just want to see it happen,” Sally says.

The council has applied to the Lottery Grants Board for funding for a feasibility study for potential uses of the block.

The Hurunui council’s manager of regulatory services, Judith Batchelor, says the application is supported by the community, which gave an enthusiastic response to the expressions of interest process.

“The overarching objective of this feasibility study is to provide recommendations to revive the Soldiers’ Block.

“It is vacant and the council would like to see it preserved and used for social, recreational and cultural activities; combined with economic activity to ensure the community has the ability to manage and fund the ongoing maintenance and development,” she says.

The council is keen to meet the needs of the community and visitors, with the first stage of the feasibility study looking at assessing, understanding and determining the aspirations and requirements of the community.

“This needs assessment will be developed as a result of information the council already has, community engagement, and an assessment of existing facilities.”

The Soldiers’ Block is one of two remaining “Soldiers’ Block” hospitals in New Zealand and the only one remaining on its original site. It is believed to be unique internationally, with its design based on the contemporary medical belief in fresh air, good ventilation, sun and location in a parklike setting to improve recovery for patients.

The uncommon octagonal form of the wards, with a central octagonal nurses’ station, was an efficient plan to maximise patients and minimise staff numbers necessary for supervision.