Council to make determination on use of Fisherman’s Village at Swan Bay as rehabilitation facility

An aerial view of the Fisherman’s Village at Swan Bay. Photo: Australian Rural.


PORT STEPHENS Council is expected to make a determination next month over the contentious use of a Swan Bay holiday village as a rehabilitation facility.

The site, at the Fisherman’s Village on Moffats Road in Swan Bay, is currently being used, in-part, by Connect Global Ltd, a ‘drug and alcohol treatment centre running a restoration program dedicated to helping men in the recovery stage of their addiction’.

The strata-managed Fisherman’s Village site includes 46 cabins, a large shed, tennis courts and a pool.

Connect Global has been operating at the Moffats Road site since 2013, with the service experiencing significant growth in the past several years.

Also frequenting the site are holidaymakers and residents who come to the Fisherman’s Village to enjoy the riverfront location and park amenities.

Local residents, of both the Fisherman’s Village and greater Swan Bay, have pushed back against the use of the site as a rehabilitation facility, forming the Swan Bay Action Group to coordinate their efforts.

Currently zoned RU2 Rural Landscape, the Fisherman’s Village was originally marketed to investors in the mid-1990s as a holiday park.

“In 1994 I was around when it was advertised as a great investment, you could use it as your own holiday home,” a member of the Swan Bay Action Group told News Of The Area.

“The attractions were the tennis courts, swimming pool and the pretend golf course.”

Current cabin owners say they bought cabins in the Fisherman’s Village before realising the extent of the site’s current use.

Connect Global is operated by director Ross Pene, who with his wife owns several of the Fisherman’s Village cabins.

A majority of the remaining cabins are owned by Fisherman’s Village Swan Bay Proprietary Limited, whose director is Mr Hilton Grugeon, who Mr Pene describes as his business partner.

Mr Grugeon is well known across the Hunter for his involvement in large scale industrial developments.

The Swan Bay Action Group have expressed numerous concerns about the suitability of the site as a rehabilitation facility.

In the current arrangement, participants of the Connect Global program are allowed shared access to the Village’s communal pool and tennis courts.

“The community has raised concerns due to the large congregation of men sent by the courts after substance abuse and with some violent backgrounds to Fisherman’s Village,” said a Swan Bay Action Group spokesperson.

“This is an unfenced facility, where men on parole and on bail are able to roam around with lots of freedom and mix with families with children.

“The location of the facility is too far from the police, hospital etc.

“Compliance issues have been raised and complaints have been raised to Port Stephens Council, as the way some of these men act around the residents and holiday makers has caused fear and some people have left their holidays early.

“Everyone deserves a second chance but this site is totally inappropriate and the community has strongly objected,” the spokesperson said.

Swan Bay residents have expressed concerns over a perceived lack of supervision on site, particularly given the criminal history of some Connect Global participants.

Community members have also raised concerns about holidaymakers and cabin residents being subject to intimidation from Connect Global staff, and alcohol being accessed by program participants.

Residents of the Fisherman’s Village who are not subject to Connect Global program rules are freely allowed to consume alcohol on site, within metres of cabins used for rehabilitation purposes.

Pictures attained by the Swan Bay Action Group from social media show groups of men in outlaw motorcycle gang colours drinking alcohol on site at Connect Global, as well as alcohol stored in the on-site shed, formerly the home of Moffat’s Oyster Barn restaurant.

Much of the protest from Fisherman’s Village residents about the use of the site revolves around the ‘oyster barn’, which village bylaws state must be used as a restaurant.

The barn is now used by Connect Global to house staff offices, store boats and trailers and as the central location for rehabilitation program activities.

After complaints from local residents, a request to investigate the unauthorised use of the site was made to Port Stephens Council in June 2020.

Investigations were undertaken by Council and it was determined that the site was not approved for this type of use.

“Council issued an order to cease the use of the Oyster Barn as a community facility on 15 November 2021,” a Port Stephens Council spokesperson said.

“The order required the operator to cease use within sixty (60) days of receiving the order.

“This matter is now before the Land and Environment Court.”

Connect Global lodged a development application (DA) to operate a ‘community facility’ on site, which was withdrawn on 20 October 2022.

A new DA, this time for a ‘transitional group home’, was then lodged, attracting 75 submissions during the exhibition period.

The development application remains under consideration and determination of the DA is anticipated to occur in March 2023.

News Of The Area visited Connect Global to speak with Ross Pene and address community concerns.

Mr Pene is a Christian pastor, a congregant of the C3 Spectrum Church at Anna Bay and a member of the Longriders Christian Motorcycle Club.

Mr Pene said emphatically that alcohol and drugs were not used on site by rehabilitation program participants, with Connect Global implementing a one strike policy for substance use.

“We have a golden rule here, if you bring alcohol into this place and get caught with alcohol, you are out.

“There is no warning.

“It is known before you commence the program.

“You sign a contract to say you understand what is in the guidelines.

“You can’t consume alcohol, you can’t bring alcohol in here and think you will be able to stay – because you won’t be able to stay.

“It is the same with any type of drug, any illicit drug.”

Connect Global runs a stringent drug and alcohol testing regime, according to the program director, with randomised testing completed three times a week.

“We have the best drug testing campaign going.

“We have our own pathologist.

“Every urine sample is supervised and watched.”

Mr Pene did concede however, that alcohol was used on site by residents of the Village not associated to Connect Global.

“There are about four or five cabins that are being used by other people who come and stay on site.”

In terms of supervision, Mr Pene said a high standard of care was taken to ensure compliance with Connect Global rules, with participants only leaving site to attend essential appointments.

“The truth is, we do have very good supervision here, and our clock runs 24/7.

“There is someone on all the time.

“There is no lack of supervision here.

“They (Connect Global participants) can’t come and go as they please.

“If I can’t account for anybody, that person is in trouble, I know where everybody is at all given times.”

According to Connect Global onboarding documentation, participants are allowed access to a motor vehicle after a four week review, or as advised by Correctional Services.

While Swan Bay Action Group members allege intimidation on-site from Connect Global staff and participants, Mr Pene said nothing could be further from the truth.

“I don’t know anybody on this site who has been intimidated,” he said.

“We actually invite them (other complex residents) to come here on Thursday nights to our movie nights and our dinners.

“They tell me they have never felt so safe,” he said.

The Fisherman’s Village was originally developed as a tourism opportunity, but Mr Pene believes the site simply does not suit that purpose, citing a lack of privacy and distance between cabins.

“If this is a place for tourism, we are not in a third world country,” he said.

“If we are talking DAs for tourism, it just doesn’t work.”

With a DA for a ‘transitional group home’ currently under Council review, Mr Pene said the amended zoning matches perfectly with the work undertaken at Connect Global.

While he waits for Council to make their determination on the site’s use, Mr Pene maintains that the rehabilitation facility is operating legally.

“A transitional group home (zoning) is perfect for what we do.

“What we have done is approach Council to make an amendment to the DA, and that is exactly what is in place at the moment.

“We are not here illegally.

“It is all above board.

“We will get approval for what we want to do here, but that takes time.”

Mr Pene said Australia was “screaming out” for facilities such as Connect Global.

“We are the only ones doing what we are doing and we do a very good job at it.”

The Connect Global program is based around five key principles: manhood, fatherhood, family, workplace and community.

Christianity also plays a major role in the rehabilitation process, according to Mr Pene.

The Connect Glopal mission statement is “equip men to live a Christ centered connected life of change. Resolving the devastating effects of substance addiction on the lives of individuals, their families, and their communities”.

“If we can help someone become a better person, then praise God for that, that is our whole focus here,” said Mr Pene.

“It is for the wellbeing – mentally, spiritually, physically, socially – of all the men in our program.”

Participants of the program begin their day with a 6am roadrun, with physical fitness, nutrition and development of healthy routine key to the Connect Global ethos.

Each morning, participants gather for a group meeting, with a focus on the value of manhood.

“The whole meeting is involved around manhood, fatherhood, family, going back to work and entering back into the wider community as a very respected member of that community.

“A lot of these guys have been in all sorts of trouble.

“They could have been in jail five times.

“They come here and the whole focus is to impact their life with some skills and mechanisms that will help them make good choices.”

Connect Global holds the contract for maintenance of the Fisherman’s Village common areas, including lawn mowing, and participants complete the work unpaid as part of their rehabilitation program.

Operating at the site since 2013, Mr Pene highlighted the program’s high success rate, noting that participants go on to an ‘extension program’ after their initial six month stint at Connect Global.

“After that they are back in the community, they are back at work doing well, their families are healthy, they are off the drugs and the grog, and they start to find a whole new pathway in life.

“We take a summary of what they are doing after they have been out of the program for twelve months.”

Mr Pene said it was essential that program participants re-enter the workforce after their rehabilitation program.

“It is paramount they go to work.

“You can’t let them leave here and go home and do nothing.”

Mr Pene, who has been working in criminal corrections for more than 30 years, noted that many ex-program participants have settled in Port Stephens to remain connected to the facility.

“A lot of guys stay locally and stay connected.

“They don’t want to go back into their rat hole.

“Heaps of participants have sold their properties and bought up this way and relocated for that reason.

“If you don’t change the location and the environment, you are going to be straight back in and the fleas are going to jump straight back on you again.”

Acknowledging community concerns regarding his connection to outlaw motorcycle gangs, Mr Pene said his work as a Christian minister had led him to connect with alleged gang members over the years in a religious capacity.

“I am a Harley rider, and I ride with a Christian motorcycle club called the Longriders Motorcycle Club.

“I have been the President of the Northern NSW club from day dot.

“Because I am a biker and I am a minister, I have all these guys from one percent motorcycle clubs.

“I do their funerals, I do their christenings, I do their wedding services, I do all their stuff that has anything to do with religion.

“I work with these people.

“I administer the services that are required on a spiritual level to anybody.”

Mr Pene concedes that alleged outlaw motorcycle gangs had visited the facility in the past, but not in recent years.

“I do memorial services on occasion.

“They have popped in here for a cuppa.

“The last one I did (service) was up at Tomaree, and so on the way home I invited them to come for a cup of tea.

“About 30 of them dropped in.

“We don’t do it anymore.

“I haven’t done that in seven years.

“I stopped it to stop the perception.

“I don’t want to have anybody perceiving that I am tied up with the one percent gangs, because I am not.”

While visitors are allowed on site on occasion, Mr Pene stressed that anyone on bail conditions or with connections to outlaw motorcycle gangs is not allowed entry.

Mr Pene said Connect Global had been a victim of baseless rumours, with intense scrutiny from police and charity boards into the operation as a result of complaints made by members of the public.

Mr Pene said Connect Global plans to host an open day on site at the Fisherman’s Village, and invites concerned members of the public to attend and see the day-to-day operation of the rehabilitation facility for themselves.

“Ideally, one of the best things that can happen is they come and have a look for themselves.”

Mr Pene told News Of The Area he had lodged defamation proceedings against a Fisherman’s Village cabin owner making untrue statements about Connect Global.

Connect Global and the Swan Bay Action Group now await Council’s decision as to DA approval.



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