Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

The future of Tenterfield’s Sir Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts is being questioned as Tenterfield Shire Council seeks to return the iconic building back to the NSW National Trust, in a cost-saving move.

At this week’s council meeting, a proposal to hand back the building was not accepted, instead, it was decided the Chief Executive and Mayor would renegotiate a lease with the National Trust that is financially sustainable and in the best interest of the community.

The motion was amended with a report to come back to council for the June meeting, with Council eager to have a decision made ahead of the new financial year budget.

“In those deliberations the School of Arts, which is a National Trust owned building, very dearly loved by our community, has been subject to a lease with council since 1999.”

“But it comes at a significant cost to council and the ratepayers,” said Tenterfield Mayor, Bronwyn Petrie.

“This year we are looking at a loss of over $319,000 or in other words $1 million over three years, and our current lease has zero contribution from the National Trust.”

The Lease Agreement 

NSW National Trust owns the complex on Tenterfield’s main street and in 1999 the council at the time entered into a 50-year lease agreement with the National Trust. That agreement was for a peppercorn rent of $1 a year and Tenterfield Shire Council would take over the management of the complex and the responsibility for all maintenance and repairs.

This responsible included the library, the museum, the café, the theatre and cinema as a whole.

“It is a nationally significant building, but the nation doesn’t contribute to its running cost, therefore the CEO started negotiations with the National Trust about co-funding, and they have had no willingness to do so,” Mayor Petrie said.

“But they have now said they are willing to discuss it, but there is no commitment they would give any funding to the building or maintenance and that is the negotiations we are going to go into over the next two months.”

Council is eager to meet with the National Trust and put all options on the table.

“What council is seeking is a new lease, that has a co-funding arrangement that could have that building run by an organisation, like they do in other National Trust buildings, that reduces the cost to our ratepayers,” she said.

Without a co-funding agreement, Council would need to find alternate funding avenues from an already stretched budget. This could mean pulling from roads or other council run services. 

Council is exploring and exhausting all cost-saving measures. 

“The money has to come from somewhere.”

“So, we’ve either have a choice of reducing costs elsewhere or selling further assets.”

“We are also mindful we will find out next month if the Federal government will increase the Federal assistance grants and whether IPART is going to give Tenterfield Shire Council a Special Rate variation, and if so, what percentage,” Mayor Petrie said.

Friends of Sir Henry Parkes School of Arts

Friends of the School of Arts is a committee of the National Trust, passionate about keeping Tenterfield’s history alive and available to the public. 

As key stakeholders of the School of Arts, the group feels frustrated and blindsided by the lack of communication over the buildings future and the discussion being had.

“To lose it would be incomprehensible,” said Christine Denis, Secretary of Sir Henry Parks Memorial School of Arts Friends.

“It’s not just a building for Tenterfield, it’s a building of National Significance.”

“How do we tout ourselves as the birthplace of Federation if we don’t have the School of Arts, where Henry Parks made his speech in 1889.”

Ms Denis has been part of the Friends of the School of Arts for over 22 years and has seen the significant changes with management, the running, and costs of this ageing complex.

“In the last few years there has been a change of management. The people who have been long established there in management positions have retired and suddenly there is no body there with prior experience, and the new management team is more expensive than the previous one.” said Ms Denis.

Volunteer numbers are down and being replaced with casual positions, adding to the growing bill. But Friends say handing back the building isn’t as simple as it looks and won’t fix council’s financial issues.

“Once they hand that back, they are responsible for making sure the maintenance schedule has been maintained and that everything is up to date. That is not the situation.”

“There is some $866,000 worth of backlog of repairs and maintenance to be done,” Ms Denis.

“If council decides to hand back the building, they’ve got to come up with that money.”

“They don’t have any money.”

One of the biggest concerns of residents is the services located inside the complex, the library, theatre, cinema, museum, and café.

“If they hand it back, there is no guarantee that the library will be at the School of Arts.”

“It would be negotiated with the Trust, and it certainly wouldn’t be a peppercorn rent, and that is again money someone has to come up with,” Ms Denis said.

“There is a chance in the building is handed back it will be mothballed, and the only open part would be the museum and the café.”

However, Council reassures there will always be a library in town.

“We never had any intention of not having a library and part of those negotiations were to have a negotiated commercial lease on the library section of that building,” said Mayor Petrie.

Where to from here

Moving forward Tenterfield Shire Council and the NSW National Trust will be in talks on how to keep the complex operating but at less cost, with a decision to be presented ahead of the next budget.

“We all love the building. This is a horrible decision to face,” said Mayor Petrie.

“It is really tough for councillors; we are members of this community.”

“We love the services that council provides, such as the School of Arts, the swimming pool, the library, the saleyards, whatever is happens to be.”

“These services mean a lot to the community, but we need to be financially sustainable, so that the core services of keeping the Shire open-these things simply need to be funded from somewhere,” she said.

“Council is responsible for maintenance, but the building requires so renewal and that is the issue council has moving forward.”

“We aren’t in a financial position to deal with renewal items to do with the building’s structure, as opposed to maintenance.”

“Which is why we are seeking a commitment from the National Trust to have this National Building to have some financial co-funding from the actual body who owns it.”

Friends of the School of Arts see stakeholders an essential asset to finding a resolution.

“If people could get together and work in a positive fashion, there might be ways to manage the situation at the School of Art in an economic fashion,” Ms Denis said.

“The idea of the Trust putting a lot of money into the School of Arts is not even a vague possibility.”

“The Trust like everyone else is battling for funds. They have been impacted by the national disasters.”

“They own 300 properties, they don’t have a thousand workers – they’re running as lean as they possible can and their income is down.”

“People are going to have to think outside the box to try and come up with someway to cut costs while still keeping the facility going.”

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