It has been almost a decade since the state government pulled the Newcastle Post Office building back into public hands in May 2010, spending $4.25 million.
That price tag reflected a $2.37 million profit for Sydney developer Sean Ngu on the transaction a decade before that, a 2002 purchase from the Howard government for $1.88 million.
Back in 2010, the state government bought the building after it passed in at auction at $3.3 million. The highest bidder at that unsuccessful auction was cosmetic surgeon Dr Jerry Schwartz.
Dr Schwartz could have been forgiven for thinking that was the end of his hope to own a building few dispute is one of the city’s jewels despite the burnish it has suffered. Instead, he oversaw the beginning of works widely considered overdue when asbestos crews moved in on Thursday.
In that time, little has changed for the elegant piece of architecture in a saga described in this space earlier this year as “one of the more dispiriting events in the city’s recent history”.
‘‘It’s come to symbolise the decay in the city, it’s come to symbolise the decline of Newcastle,’’ then Newcastle MP Jodi McKay said in 2010.
Four years after Ms McKay declared the purchase to broad approval, a court handed ownership of the site to the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council.
Justice Rachel Pepper ruled that the government had failed to prove the site was needed for ‘‘essential public purposes’’ or that it was being ‘‘used or occupied’’, which would have denied the land council’s claim.
That bar does not seem a high one to pass, despite the high costs associated with bringing the structure back from the brink. Those costs have only grown in the intervening years despite many false dawns. Perhaps the city is lucky that the building’s new landlord describes the purchase as a “labour of love” and predicts he will make no profit.
Despite Dr Schwartz’s many investments in the Hunter, the population of Newcastle can be forgiven for being cautious about any optimism over the site given its lengthy dilapidation and many past promises that failed to materialise.
As work began on Thursday, it was a day some could be forgiven for expecting never to arrive. Now, the wait for the next milestone begins anew after 16 lost years.