Grand plans for heritage mill

Kent AcottThe West Australian

It could be the most significant $1 Nigel Oakey has spent.

It will allow the boss of Dome - one of WA's most successful cafe chains - to open its first accommodation venue, restore one of WA's most significant industrial buildings and revitalise an important Wheatbelt town.

But the payment has come with expensive strings attached.

To transform the 124-year-old Katanning flour mill from a decaying structure to a welcoming Dome cafe and inn, Mr Oakey is going to have to spend more than $4 million.

It is a major investment in his product, his brand and in the tourist potential of Katanning.

"We wanted to do something special," Mr Oakey said.

"And to do something special, we need a unique place.

"This is a unique building in a unique community, in a unique part of WA that I think has been under-exposed to the general population for a long time."

The three-storey, electrically powered mill was built by merchant, agriculturist and politician Frederick Henry Piesse in 1891. It became the centrepiece of a flourishing new town that was effectively born with the arrival of the Great Southern rail line in 1899.

Mr Piesse was the local MP from 1890 and, for a brief time in 1899, he was the State's deputy premier. He died in 1912 and is buried in Katanning.

The mill operated until 1977. It was a tourist centre for a while but has been empty for years.

This prompted the Shire to try to sell the building for $1.

Dome first approached the Shire in 2012 and, after years of negotiations, town forums, plans and discussions, work is expected to begin on the new venture next month.

"Not only is this an opportunity to develop a business, it is an opportunity to showcase a town and a building," Mr Oakey said.

"This is a building that was built by someone who is responsible for some significant events in this State, whether it be the first provider of electric lights, through to his extensive winery operation, pioneering the manufacture of flour and, along the way, being a delegate at the Federation Conference."

The ground floor will look like a conventional Dome cafe but will also be the reception area for the upstairs accommodation.

There will be 20 king-sized rooms on the second and third floors.

"It will not be like you're sleeping in a Dome cafe," Mr Oakey said.

"Every room will tell a story, a story about the place and the community in which you are sleeping in.

"You will know you are staying in a flour mill that played a significant part on the local town and broader community."

While the mill originally took only 18 weeks to build, the restoration project could take more than a year.

But Mr Oakey is prepared to spend the time and money to ensure the end result is as authentic as possible.

A historian will play a key role in the interior design for the rooms and lounges.

Already, they have made some interesting discoveries.

"We discovered that the Piesse family, before they migrated to WA, were involved in a perfume business with a French company," Mr Oakey said.

"So we have found a book with details about some of their perfumes and cosmetics and we're going to use a local maker to try to replicate them.

"We also understand that the mill's boiler was used to sound a whistle that told the town when they could start work, have their smoko and their lunch and then knock off. We are planning to have a similar work whistle sounding at noon every day."

Shire of Katanning chief executive Julian Murphy said the venture would have two key benefits - it would make use of an under-utilised and important building and bring a reputable new business to the town.

"Accommodation can be at a premium in Katanning and the district, so this will help establish the region as a genuine tourist attraction," he said.

"Katanning is an agricultural town but we know that this is a region where people like to come for holidays and to enjoy what the district has to offer."

Of the 70 Dome cafes in WA, 17 are in heritage-listed buildings. And Katanning will be just the start of its push into accommodation. It recently bought the Shamrock Hotel in Northam for a similar venture.

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