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McAlpine re-enters Broome debate
WA News McAlpine re-enters Broome debate

To younger Broome residents, Lord Alistair McAlpine is only dimly recalled as that eccentric posh bloke with a big exotic animal collection who signed the deal to buy land for the Cable Beach Club with a signature scrawled on a beer coaster.

To the WA business community, he was the bombastic force fuelled by his family's millions who swept in, snapped up prime real estate and businesses for several decades and left in the early 1990s, divested of his inherited wealth and never to be heard from again.

But in Broome, the outspoken former British Conservative Party treasurer looms larger than life, still beloved for breathing life into a struggling town and helping turn it into a major tourist destination.

It has been almost a decade since Lord McAlpine, now 68 and living a peaceful life in Italy with his third wife, Athena, last set foot on Broome's pindan soil.

But he still has a deep sentimental connection to the place - and firm views about the region's future development.

For a start, he is unconcerned at the prospect of the proposed gas precinct plant at James Price Point. But he cautions that any development must be done with sensitivity to Aboriginal rights and the environment - which the community itself has insisted on.

"You can have an empty region full of wealth and do nothing about it - that's a rather selfish attitude," Lord McAlpine says.

"Have a refinery or whatever, but put it in a good place . . . as (people) realise the importance of development, they've got to equally realise the drawbacks of development, the ugliness of it.

"What kills a place like Broome is not development up the coast - which frankly no more than a few thousand people ever went to - but the building of high and ugly buildings along the coastline in an area where people live.

"Development . . . has to be balanced. It has to be done with intelligence and sensitivity. If you want to see, what Broome shouldn't look like, go to the Gold Coast."

Widely credited as the man who saved Broome from such a fate, Lord McAlpine could be considered well qualified on the subject.

Former premier Peter Dowding remembers him as a "visionary with taste", who spent millions of dollars of his own money developing and enhancing Broome and encouraged others including the State Government to do the same.

He says Lord McAlpine arrived in Broome when its ruling class saw no value in its heritage, buildings or unique racial mix. He turned all that around.

"He drew the world's attention to the Broome pearl industry, brought many high-profile heads of state to Broome and gave many donations to local charities - and he created the beautiful Cable Beach Club and the zoo," Mr Dowding says.

The peer had first visited Broome in the late 1970s, fresh from a multi-million-dollar building and buying spree in Perth's CBD. Broome was a ramshackle, rundown affair, struggling with a downturn in the pearling industry, a lack of essential services and a dwindling population.

Historic buildings were crumbling and the sealed highway connecting Broome to Port Hedland was still years away.

But through the shimmering heat and clouds of mosquitoes Lord McAlpine saw only potential.

He returned with then wife Romilly in January 1981 and spent several months each year - and about $500 million of his own money - transforming the place over a decade.

Back then, he was mystified about why WA's capital was founded in the south, when the north was brimming with unexploited opportunities for wealth.

"I still think that," he says. "In the late 70s and early 80s in WA, people thought the North West was a hell-hole. Well, it's clear that was completely wrong . . . it was an immensely rich and neglected region. It was just a small country town that was dying on its feet - or probably sitting down."

Today, Lord McAlpine's stamp is still all over the place. Treasured buildings he bought and restored include the former pearling master Herbert Kennedy's residence, the historic Sun Pictures movie theatre in Chinatown, Matso's Store and the Monsoon Gallery.

After founding the Broome Preservation Society, he bought 30 of the old pearlers' houses at risk of demolition, gave them the once-over and sold them back to locals at a profit.

In 1984, he started his famed zoo for endangered species in Cable Beach and in 1988, opened what is today still Broome's most famous resort, the Cable Beach Club.

Lord McAlpine at his Pearl Coast Zoological Gardens in August 1985.

Many locals remember him dipping into deep pockets to fund community initiatives or quietly partnering with new businesses to give them a head start. Even a public oval in the town bears his name.

Longstanding Pilbara MP Tom Stephens, who first encountered the good lord in the early 1980s, recalls a "charming and very amusing"; personality who instantly bonded with the people of Broome.

He had a very clear vision for development in the north, Mr Stephens says, and bought buildings strategically. He also became a close friend of several Aboriginal leaders and collected their art.

"Too many of the then lead local Broome civic and business leaders were disinterested in the heritage of Broome and much of the built environment was falling down around the ears of owners and tenants," Mr Stephens says.

"Old Broome buildings at most risk seemed to attract his earliest attention and very soon he was repairing, restoring and maintaining so much of the local architectural heritage, leading the way for others to take a fresh look."

Lord McAlpine snapped up properties from Derby through to Darwin, intending to link them so international visitors could go through the Kimberley and Northern Territory in one experience.

He also bought Roebuck Plains Station near Broome with the vision of building an international airport to exploit the massive potential of horticultural exports to South-East Asia, but this was stifled by bureaucratic red tape.

Lord McAlpine finally bowed out of Broome in the early 1990s, not long after the pilots' strike in 1989 brought industry to its knees and was followed by recession.

Six years later, his family forced him to sell Australian City Properties - and his vast property portfolio in Broome. Then he was gone, moving to Monte Carlo to pursue a career as a writer and concentrate on his career in Europe.

Today, he has no business interests in WA and having abandoned his jetsetting lifestyle due to ill health, Lord McAlpine says he is unsure whether he'll ever return.

It's a shame, because many of his visions have finally been realised.

Today, he is happiest tending to the garden at his converted 14th century convent, a dilapidated ruin he salvaged and turned into a beautiful bed-and-breakfast. Only occasionally, he says, does he reflect nostalgically on his life in WA.

"I've been very lucky. I can't say I've ever looked after myself very well, but I've had a hell of a lot of fun," he says. "When I think about Broome, it's with pleasure. It was very tough when I first went there . . . but there was always humour and you never had a day without laughing.

"Of course I'd like to (come back). I love Australia, it's a fantastic place. It's a question of possibility. But I've moved on. Whereas I would have liked to have remodelled Broome, I'm now remodelling a large garden in southern Italy."