Milestone . . . Observatory Village Charitable Trust chairman Peter Robinson (left), and past chairman Ian Hurst reflect on the success of the development, after five years of operation. PHOTO: ASHLEY SMYTH

On August 8, 2017, Oamaru’s Observatory Village Lifecare opened the doors to its first residents. Five years on, Charitable Trust chairman Peter Robinson talks to Ashley Smyth about the success of the facility, the challenges faced along the way, and plans for the future.

Five years almost to the day since it opened, Oamaru Observatory Village Charitable Trust chairman Peter Robinson could not be happier with how the village is going.

The retirement village and rest-home complex was initially planned to accommodate a predicted future need for aged care in Oamaru. Instead it arrived just in time to plug a gap, when existing rest-home, Rendell on Reed, closed its doors, followed by Totara.

When stage 1 of the development, which comprised 41 care beds and 12 apartments, was being built from 2015 to 2017, the trust was approached about taking over the running of Rendell on Reed, which housed close to 50 residents, Mr Robinson said.

‘‘So we negotiated a deal where we would run it, and lease the premises off the owner.

‘‘The advantage for us, was that when we opened in 2017, not only did we start with a full contingent of residents, we also already had most of our staff.’’

Rendell on Reed manager Rosie Dwyer made the move to Observatory Village, and more recently, the role had been taken on by Moira Kleigl.

‘‘So, they’ve made things run really smoothly,’’ Mr Robinson said.

Also, instead of the nine months they anticipated it would take to fill the beds, they were full from day one.

‘‘It was a heck of a day getting everyone up there — but having a full staff was fantastic.’’

The village and rest-home are run by two companies — Observatory Village Care Ltd and Observatory Village Life Care Ltd — which report to the Observatory Trust.

Along with Mr Robinson, the company directors are Clare Kearney and Michelle Sintmaartensdyk, while Oamaru lawyer Michael de Buyzer chairs the trust.

North Otago businessman and fellow trustee Ian Hurst was one of the driving forces behind the project and, before standing down about a year ago, had been Charitable Trust chairman and a company director.

Mr Hurst and brother Doug were already involved in the rest-home industry, and Mr Robinson was a shareholder in about 12 or 13 villages around New Zealand, he said.

‘‘So I was well aware, as were Doug and Ian . . . of what was out there, and we had some professionals that we utilised, and used those people to then help the design.

‘‘So we basically took the best bits out of ones that we were aware of . . .right around New Zealand. So we believe we’ve got a very, very good facility here.’’

In July, 2018, 20 care beds were added, and another 20 in May 2019, taking the total to the current 81.

A further 10 apartments were built in 2019, and 10 more in 2020 — bringing that number to 32.

‘‘In 2018-19, we built 21 villas, and they were all sold, and as soon as they were completed, people moved in.

‘‘That’s where we are sitting today, but we are now on stage 2 villa development, which is 48 extra villas, a community centre and another apartment block with 12 more apartments, and already we’ve got two people moved in.’’

The goal was to have the community centre finished by the end of next year and then, progressively, the villas.

‘‘It’s been a huge development over a relatively short time. Already 11 of the new villas are sold, and we haven’t even tried to sell the next lot, we won’t be building them until 2023, and there’ll be at least another 10 built then.’’

The entire project was kick-started by a $5 million loan from the Waitaki District Health Services Trust, which runs Oamaru Hospital, and that had now been fully repaid. Money had also been lent by the Waitaki District Council, Mr Robinson said.

The development is worth approximately $50 million, and the amount still owing to the council is $15.6 million. Mr Robinson estimated the loans would be repaid fully in the next 10 to 12 years.

‘‘So in time, when all the loans are paid down . . . the profits generated from the Observatory will end up in the sector of healthcare for North Otago, which could be the hospital, or it could be a number of other things.’’

The quick uptake of spots at the village, had been surprising ‘‘in a good way’’, he said.

The majority of residents were from North Otago, and this had stemmed the migration of retirees to other towns with similar facilities, meaning they could remain near family and friends.

The care facility provided both rest-home and hospital-level care, and so it was a requirement for a certain number of registered nurses to be onsite every shift — a requirement that had become more difficult in recent years, due to the challenges presented by Covid-19.

The industry also relied heavily on migrant workers and, with the borders shut, this had also created a challenge, Mr Robinson said.

‘‘We’ve got a lot less registered nurses than we used to have, so we’ve got to juggle and do extra shifts and utilise the manager, and what have you, so that’s been a challenge. But . . .it’s starting to come right.

‘‘That’s probably been the biggest challenge — the rest has been a dream really.’’

Local firm Roger Gilchrist Building Services had been the main contractor for all the construction, which had been project managed by Michael Forgie. Almost all tradesmen had been local.

The community response to the development had been ‘‘fantastic’’, Mr Robinson said.

‘‘It’s been really good. There’s been strong support.

‘‘There has been some confusion about the ownership, that some people think maybe it’s a private ownership, but it’s not. Also some confusion or concern about the hospital money . . .but that’s all been fully paid.

‘‘There’s confusion out there, not everyone knows the structure, but otherwise, yes, it’s been fantastic, and anyone that goes up there has been pretty much amazed at just what’s up there.’’

On a personal level, Mr Robinson had found being involved in the venture ‘‘very rewarding’’.

It was providing a great service and facilities for people going into their retirement, and a great rest-home. It also provided employment for 100 people.

‘‘Then the real cherry is, at the end, when we make the money, it’s going back into things like our Oamaru Hospital and health services. So, it’s very rewarding for me, and that’s why I’m doing it . . . I’m doing it to support the North Otago community.’’

A recent audit, within a relatively new framework, had also reinforced the village was on the right track, with a four-year certification received last month. Two outside auditors had been at the establishment for a week, reviewing policy procedures, key performance indicators, and performance across the whole business, including interviewing board and management, he said.

‘‘We were sort of told it was going to be more difficult to get more than one or two years, but because we’ve had some pretty amazing people come in, we got a four, which we got a congratulations from the DHB over.

‘‘To get that was a real feather in the cap for the Observatory Village.’’

The most important feedback, however, was from the people who lived there, and Mr Robinson said it was ‘‘always extremely good’’, although they were constantly looking for ways to improve.

‘‘It’s a wonderful location. We’ve built it to maximise the views for as many people as possible, so if they’re not looking at the sea, they’re looking at the mountains, where they are up there. And being a brand new facility, it’s warm, it’s clean, it’s hard not to be happy to be there.’’

Once stage 2 was complete, that was the end of the development for the Stoke St site.

The facility was already full to capacity, and there were waiting lists to get in to most, if not all, other North Otago rest-homes.

‘‘The Observatory’s really only replaced what we’ve already had, where the original intention was to have more.

‘‘So North Otago, in my view, needs more beds. So whether that’s something that the trust do, is another thing, but someone will need to provide more care beds going into the future.’’

Ten long-service staff who had been with Observatory Village,were recognised at a five-year celebration on Wednesday.

Mr Robinson said it was important to acknowledge they had been there ‘‘since day one’’, in a high-turnover industry.