A new park operator for Gunnedah’s planned koala sanctuary might be just around the corner as construction continues on stage two of the project.

Gunnedah Shire Council has been in talks with a prospective operator and fine-tuning design details for the planned sanctuary.

The negotiations follow the withdrawal of original caretakers, North Queensland-based park operators, CaPTA Group, from the Gunnedah koala project after citing difficulties arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, site preparation and initial construction is underway at the Gunnedah sanctuary which has benefited from more than $20 million in funding support from the previous Coalition government.

The plans designed by Dunn & Hillam Architects for the staged project include a wildlife centre and hospital building to house the main entry, shop and café.

Council said future plans may include a petting zoo, nature playground, koala and other animal enclosures, a wildlife sanctuary walk, a caretaker’s residence, picnic areas, a cultural heritage display and demonstration area, caravan sites and safari tent accommodation.

In December last year, the sanctuary was awarded $8 million in funding from the state government’s Regional Tourism Activation Fund.

It was also awarded $5.624 million for stage two through round 9 of the NSW government’s Resources for Regions program.

This was in addition to $6.48 million from the NSW government’s Regional Communities Development Fund, allocated in 2018.

Additionally, council also welcomed a $2 million contribution from Whitehaven Coal in 2022.

The funding top-up followed revised cost estimates by council in 2022 which revealed the project had a $6.2 million shortfall in in funds due to “skyrocketing supply and labour costs” following COVID-19.

During last year’s announcement of the second tranche of funding by the NSW government, Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson said helping Gunnedah maintain its iconic koala status was vitally important.

“When you think about Gunnedah as the koala capital of the world, we want to make sure we can provide everything we can for that,” he said.

The sanctuary is located in a 50-acre bush setting off Hunts Road, west of Gunnedah.

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