Town Hall’s discovery of loose lease terms for its clubrooms and sheds in the parklands is proving to be a costly lesson in asset management.

It’s that time of the year one hankers for those lazy summer afternoons mucking about in a wooden boat, down by a river somewhere. Repairs wouldn’t really be the focus; indeed, keeping anything in repair is a decidedly passé thing to do if you look at the city’s river-edge history. That’s confirmed by news that Town Hall last year allocated $2.5 million (yes, $2.5 million) of ratepayers’ money to repair old clubrooms, boatsheds and other shelters in the parklands that Town Hall doesn’t actually use. They’re all leased to private groups.

Town Hall has not yet held a news conference to announce this generous cash donation towards the assets used by private sports and social clubs and commercial operators. Especially about how supposedly watertight lease documents signed over many decades now read fuzzily about lessee responsibility to pay the costs of maintaining premises in tip-top condition.

An early test case of the consequences of this long-term lease-file cock-up has links with a grand old Adelaide historical tradition: the gently gliding tour of the reedy edges of the Torrens River on a Popeye boat, as the ducks quack, the pea hens scurry and the girls blink winsomely at the boys. Popeye, a local ‘institution’, was born in 1937, but by 1950 three replacements were plying the river for the tourist trade. Each had connection with a river-edge boatshed, built in 1913, close to Jolleys Boathouse. However, by the time the 1950’s wooden versions had been replaced with fibreglass models, in the 1980s, there was no tangible connection. No boats were stored within. The only link was a name on a door. To call it a ‘boatshed’ would be to carelessly elevate it above its status.

Time to go
Today, the 99-year-old iron-roofed pile is threatening to fall down and needs replacing, which Town Hall is planning to manage, and pay for. Costly reports have made it very clear that this earthen-floor, no-mains-water edifice was an ancient wreck: a shambles of ancient wood panels and a shell of rusty corrugated iron of no historic value that should have been torn down decades ago. Curiously, despite this, Town Hall amended lease papers to reflect a new lessee only last year! The peppercorn rent was the temptation for the lessee, but a lawyer given the full picture probably would have advised the lessor, Town Hall, against it.

Were you or I to be doing the demolition, we’d hire a truck, three strong youths with sledgehammers, and have the lot at the tip by the end of a weekend. But not Town Hall. This approach is now politically incorrect, and Town Hall has spent a fortune in time and money tip-toeing through pastures of policies and principles; hiring an expensive architectural firm to state the bleeding obvious; then hiring an expensive heritage consultant to review the entire history of the shed to ensure that turning on the bulldozer might not disturb some crucial heritage nugget buried in the archives. No nuggets were found by an expert in digging them up.

Eventually the truth dawned, and administrators about six months ago recommended replacement. Even though it was never used to store boats – and will not in the future – the matter was progressed above and beyond the call of duty. It paid the architects’ and the heritage consultants’ bills, and the staff salaries spent on reviewing this complex policy matter – probably in the order of about $50,000 – and set aside $50,000 for a replacement shed. Budgeting about $100,00 to replace a $15,000 tin shed only highlights what happens when a committee is involved. But that’s not all.

Hold the horses
In September, the matter came before councillors again. Administrators sought urgent approval for demolition, which would cost $7000. Instead, however, Town Hall voted for a report detailing the ‘authentic restoration’ of the pile, “retaining as much original material intact”. That would include rusted corrugated iron, a contaminated earth floor, and signs of termites. Town Hall’s estimate to restore such a tin shed is a staggering $532,000, and the bill would take Town Hall between 21 and 37 years to, as administrators say, “repay the investment”. The front part of the shed might become a licensed café and/or kiosk, with an interpretive historical display featuring the Popeye boat story. Just one question. If Town Hall spends this sort of money on one shed, how long will the $2.5 million budget last?

And another thing...
There are 14 leased structures on the nearby shores of Torrens Lake, and many other sports sheds, kiosks and other structures elsewhere. On the riverbank, some are operated by very well-connected educational institutions, whose old boys are skilled in legal tussles. It is likely that a number who have either spent good eastern suburbs money upgrading (and therefore will be seeking compensation from the $2.5 million pot) or will now want Town Hall to start spending, notwithstanding the fact that, for this exclusive old Adelaide club of schools, there’s already an 80 percent lease fee discount available. Interestingly, to redress the historical cock-up, Town Hall has a plan to charge a new “maintenance contribution fee” on all new leases but for some curious reason it won’t apply to the exclusive old Adelaide club of schools. But all that for another day. Or perhaps for another generation of men who muck about in boats.



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