Open letter on South Wagga club proposal

To the people of Wagga and the wider community,Two and half years ago Mick O’Connell advised me that the South Wagga Sports and Bowling Club (SWSBC) was in administration and Wagga was going to lose another small club. My specialty since leaving Walsh and Blair in 1996 has been developing run down pub sites and turning ugly ducklings into beautiful swans. My company has done over 20 major hotel redevelopments. In 2009 we received the best-redeveloped hotel award for Australia by the Australian Hotel Association. SWSBC presented itself as an interesting possibility and clearly within the scope of my ability. The golden rule of property is always location, location, location. Here was a club that was close to the center of town and in the heart of a sporting precinct, unequalled, in terms of location, by any other regional town in Australia. I consulted WWCC Councilors, Council staff, the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR), the Department of Lands the AFL, Cricket Australia, Cricket NSW, both State and Federal Members of Parliament and many other bodies and individual people. There was a clear voice that Wagga and the region wanted and needed this development. Life is also about timing. There was consternation over whether to develop Robertson Oval. I made an appointment with Andrew Demetriou, the CEO of the AFL. He said the AFL was about to announce the creation of the a new AFL side from Greater Western Sydney (now known as the ‘Giants’) and the southern region of NSW would become a recruiting area of the Giants. Former captain of Sydney Swans, Paul Kelly, was going to be asked whether he would do the unthinkable. Would he swap from his beloved Swans and become an ambassador for the Giants? The AFL knew Paul loved his hometown of Wagga and is passionate about his chosen sport. This was enough to make him commit to the Giants. Similarly we met with Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia who advised that they have wanted to play cricket west of the Great Dividing Range for over 20 years but the amenities did not exist. We spoke to the Department of Lands, who are the freehold owners of the SWSBC land. They indicated that a sale of the Land was not tenable but some form of lease would be appropriate. For me the possibility of having a new club adjacent to a first class sporting facility where there was an opportunity to attract first class sport could not to be missed even despite the fact that our group could not purchase the SWSBC’s freehold title. The upgrade of Robertson Oval was beyond the control of our group yet to us was inextricably linked to the success of a new sports club and potential future funding for related sporting amenities. After extensive due diligence and after hearing the OLGR say that a situation like Wagga could be the very reason why the legislation permits class 2 applications which allows for the magnitude of 284 gaming machines. It was stated a positive application could potentially kick-start a whole sporting precinct. Our group, whilst noting that there was no commitment by the OLGR, was edified at the possibility and therefore entered into a Deed of Company Arrangement with the Administrator of SWSBC in June 2009. We were empowered to act to resurrect SWSBC. At the suggestion of the AFL we consulted ‘Cox’ who are the AFL architects. The architects, Jonathon Gardener and Phillip Rowe attended Wagga, inspected Bolton Park and spoke to seven WWCC councilors. Jon said that he was simply blown away by the potential of Bolton Park and the construction of a club surrounded by sporting facilities. He advised Councilors and Council Staff that Wagga has the best potential of an inner city sporting development of any regional town in Australia. The experience of placing a major stadium development outside the centre of a city was always an unfortunate one. He cited what Melbourne and Adelaide were doing to reinvigorate their cities. He spoke about how construction of stadiums outside the city precinct of regional cities had cost them dearly. Jon went on to say that Wagga had the opportunity to do something great. He said that here is a town and region that produces some of Australia’s finest sports men and women and there was now an opportunity to maintain and build on that heritage. Surely we could not let that vaporize. There are always benefits and detriments to any development and the task is to maximize the community benefits so they far out weigh the detriments. The obvious detriment to an application for 284 gaming entitlements is problem gaming. The RSL at the time of SWSBC’s application had an application of their own for an additional 40 gaming machines. We can all speculate why the RSL withdrew their application at this time but they then presented a comprehensive set of objections to SWSBC’s application citing problem gaming as a major issue. Lets not side-step this issue. It is the single most important issue surrounding this application. I own two hotels in Victoria that have gaming machines. I held out from buying gaming hotels for nearly ten years because of my concerns about gaming. When we did buy a gaming hotel as a group we insisted that our hotels had to raise the bar in terms of what procedures were in place to tackle problem gambling. Since SWSBC has lodged its application we have sought to educate ourselves further on problem gambling. Internet gambling is now prolific within Australia and sadly a lot of the profit is lost to overseas companies and the extent of problem gambling is not fully known. We needed to understand this problem from a local club perspective. We commissioned an expert in this field and gave him full authority to tell us the ‘warts and all’ position of problem gaming in Wagga. Leigh Barrett traveled to Wagga, he met with Council staff, the Administrator of SWSBC and two separate responsible gaming bodies. Mr Barrett inspected SWSBC and visited the two other existing clubs. His report amongst other things focuses on training of staff, early recognition of problem gamblers, provision of amenities for first point of contact meetings and proper counseling. All of this has to be done in coordination with existing responsible gambling bodies that currently exist in Wagga together with an implementation of qualified trainers from outside our area. Mr Barrett went on to say that because Wagga was in a Zone one in NSW (the lowest amount of gaming machines) that the addition of 284 machines properly managed would have a minimal effect on problem gamblers in the region. His arguments are well reasoned and supported by other studies. Arguably the standard of care for problem gamblers within the Wagga local government area may well be raised turning a negative into a positive. I am happy to make this report available at the meeting on the 20th of July 2011 or before hand by arrangement.The second potential detriment that has been presented is the argument of competition for the existing clubs. I happen to believe in Wagga. We have a growing vibrant city. Both existing clubs are located away from the center of the city in residential areas. It is my belief these clubs are somewhat inoculated from the full impact of a new club. To the RSL’s north there is a growing suburb and similarly to the Rules Club’s south there is strong residential growth. There is a fear factor that the new Club may affect them adversely to the point of finality. SWSBC hopes to attract a far ranging clientele that will also draw from outside the city of Wagga Wagga. Notably both clubs have prospered over the years from the demise of other clubs and it is certainly agreed that to survive, prosper and give back to the community as a club it needs a significant number of gaming machines. Yet what is good for the goose does not seem good for the gander. Business is about competition and the provision of services. In the same breathe allegations have been made that this development is unsustainable and will never get of the ground and claims that if it does it will financially ruin one or both of these Wagga institutions. There seems to be a presumption that the existing clubs should be immune from competition and that a duopoly must continue indefinitely. Serious and genuine amalgamation talks were being held with both clubs, however, as soon as the Casino Liquor Gaming Control Authority (the Authority) announced they were coming to Wagga to hear from the public, both clubs announced that because I was not forthcoming with a business plan they were to cease discussions and oppose the application at the hearing. Prior to this announcement I advised the clubs that a business plan could not be prepared until such time as we knew how many gaming machines were to be granted. Up until the announcement of the Authority coming to Wagga my answer seemed to be acceptable. A very pertinent question that should be asked is if the SWSBC’s application is unsuccessful will both clubs refrain from making applications to increase their gaming machine numbers in the future? People need to make up their own minds as to what are the true motivations and priorities of both clubs. A further potential detriment that has been cited by objectors is that this development is a private development. The OLGR have some bitter experience in dealing with private developers. There is legislation that prevents anyone, with the exception of registered clubs, accessing the proceeds of gaming. There is no Club legislation that deals with the ownership of land. Hence accusations that Morton is going to charge SWSBC $4million in rental and when SWSBC defaults Morton will end up with his own private Casino. Ludicrous and laughable but nevertheless when you throw muck some sticks no matter how inane. This whole matter has also been a learning process for me. Various people have pleaded with me to keep going because if I drop the ball the SWSBC will become a car park forthwith. Others have told me that I’m dreaming and Wagga could never hope to expect to have a complex this fantastic. The truth is I have to keep on going until the project either goes ahead or I am made to stop. That is who I am. I want to see this development for Wagga and for our region. For the record our group has given written undertakings to the OLGR that the lease will be between SWSBC and the Department of Lands. We have spoken to other potential sporting tenants and confirmed that the landlord will be the Department of Lands. Our group does not take a cut/percentage or payment from the landlord or tenant. The OLGR has recently advised us that SWSBC’s application complies with legislation pursuant to the Registered Clubs Act. This is not a private development but a club development assisted by a private company for the benefit of SWSBC and the community. The question on most people’s lips at this point is how do we make money in the transaction. The answer is simple. I would like to be paid for all legitimate expenses and some payment for two and a half years work. Having said that I will not let any payment get in the way of a genuine amalgamation for SWSBC. Mention has to be made of the Administrator, Mr Chris Chamberlain. He believes in this project and he also wants it for the benefit of Wagga and the wider community. For any project to go ahead Chris needs to sign off on it. In many respects apart from being the Administrator, Chris is also the community watchdog. He has the best interests of SWSBC and Wagga at heart and is doing his level best to turn this into a reality. If we are successful in this application it will be in no small part thanks to the actions of Chris Chamberlain.Therefore the original question needs to be answered; do the community benefits far out weigh the detriments? We lobbied Council very strongly for the upgrade to Robertson Oval. Through the leadership of the mayor, both current and previous, the upgrade is happening. If the lighting for the Oval has the potential to be upgraded to 1500/1800 lux, Wagga has the potential for a home and away AFL game. We also have the potential to bring elite level cricket (Sheffield Shield and 20/20), Rugby League and Rugby Union to this stadium. WWCC have included sleeves for Rugby goal posts in their proposed upgrade oval plans. This precinct development is and should be about all sport. Accusations of blurring the line between a sports oval, sports facilities and a club have been made, however, the success of SWSBC is dependent upon an active sporting precinct drawing audiences from far a field. The architect Jon Gardener correctly referred to SWSBC as the catalyst. A calalyst in the sense, that if SWSBC becomes a reality then the whole complex can be designed and built at the same time. One development but made up of many parts. SWSBC if successful in its application will provide the amenities that a first class sporting oval requires. The Giants now say that if Wagga can provide a threshold of amenities they will bring first class sport to town. If elite level sport does come to Wagga it comes in the form of two teams. Both teams have to be fully catered for. Their respective entourages have come to expect a level of services that can be provided for by both a club and first class sporting facilities. The two should work hand in glove. To quote our Federal member, Michael McCormack who wrote a letter to OLGR in support of SWSBC’s application ‘… the opportunity for Wagga Wagga, which is ideally placed halfway between the nation's two most populated capital cities Sydney and Melbourne, to have such a sporting complex fully integrated with a 1000-seat convention centre/auditorium in the heart of the central business district is, quite simply, too good to miss.’ Mr McCormack encapsulates a very common sense approach and in my opinion the development is the very opportunity that the people of Wagga and the region should be demanding.We are hoping that we can announce other sporting facilities that will be included in the development prior to the 20th of July. Dendy Cinemas have said in writing that if they can have multipurpose cinemas contained within the project they would consider a six to eight cinema complex. Similarly Strike Bowling has indicated that this sporting precinct could support an 8 to 10 lane bowling alley. The resurrection of SWSBC is at the very heart of the entire sporting development. It underpins the success of the project west of Robertson Oval. To access the borrowings to build a new first class sports club an increase in gaming machines is essential. An effective responsible gaming program needs to be developed and implemented in order to understand and minimize problem gaming. From this the benefits to the community begin to flow. In our respectful opinion the community benefits will far out weigh the detriments. That has been our plan from the get go. The Authority are coming to Wagga on the 20th of July and convening a special conference. They are asking the people of Wagga to have their say and express their interest. The Authority has advised that any persons wishing to attend and/or speak at the special conference must register by email to by July 11. I have been on TV, radio and now in the paper asking the public to get involved. If people do believe this type of development would be great for Wagga please have your say. I have been continually told by people on the streets of Wagga and by dozens of shopkeepers to keep pushing because our city and region need and deserve it. I am trying to do my bit but now I am asking for your help. I am concerned that a vocal minority may derail the true wishes of the largely silent majority. Please register your support by the 11th of July. If you would like to support the development yet cannot attend the conference then simply advice OLGR at the above email address. I genuinely believe it will be a great development and if approved hopefully a future sporting precinct may be responsible for some of our sporting greats of tomorrow.Respectfully,Charles MortonDirector, Wagga Hospitality Group Pty Ltd.