Bega Valley visitor information centres will close if new rent increase imposed

Visitor Information Centres in Merimbula, Eden and Bermagui have been hit with rental increases by council that are so severe, the centres have said they will be unable to continue their work.

The Merimbula centre currently pays a peppercorn rental of $530 per year, but the new rent will be $7700, while at Bermagui the rent of $500 will increase to over $6000. At the Eden Information Centre rent is proposed to increase from $500 to $6480.

All three centres rely heavily on volunteers to provide information and help to visitors.

Janette Neilson, of the Bermagui Chamber of Commerce said the increase was so significant the Bermagui Visitor Information Centre (BVIC) would not be able to continue.

“Our only choice would be to leave and become nomads around town as we were before, going into vacant shop fronts,” Ms Neilson said.

The BVIC receives $25,000 from SCT to help with annual costs and one staff member.

The increases will also impact the Historic Society and Four Winds who have offices in the Bermagui Community Centre.

“Council seems not to understand the situation,” Ms Neilson said.

The impact in Merimbula

The Merimbula Visitor Information Centre (MVIC) has been slugged with a rise of more than 1400 per cent after council reviewed the rent for the small lakeside office on council-managed Crown Land.

President of Merimbula Tourism Kevin Philistin called the rental increase “impossible” and warned that centres would have to close.

“Our economic model is so fragile, we rely on members fees, a limited income from signage, a small income from our retail (holiday souvenirs) and a $20,000 grant from Sapphire Coast Tourism (SCT),” Mr Philistin said.

From those funds the centre pays insurance and the equivalent of 1.75 full time equivalent staff, one of whom is the manager. Christopher Nicholls has just been appointed manager for the centre following the departure of Nat Kirby.

Much of the day to day running of the centre is carried out by volunteers 

The situation in Eden

Robert Sykes of Eden Tourism said that while it was based on a commercial rental valuation of $18,000 per annum and a rental rebate application calculated at 64 per cent, it still represented an increase of almost $6000 per annum over current rent which was determined at council’s meeting of December 3, 2014.  

“We fully realise and understand that council is in a position whereby it must seek to recover rent at commercial levels and to maximise financial returns on behalf of the ratepayers but this is an impost that we cannot absorb and will severely impact our capacity to deliver our current level of service to visitors and members,” Mr Sykes said.

The not-for-profit organisation has a full time manager and a team of approximately 20 volunteers, who Mr Sykes said recorded over 6200 hours in 2016, either working at the centre or at the Eden wharf during cruise ship visits.

“Our prime purpose is to provide visitor information and promote tourism within Eden and the Sapphire Coast and in doing so we work closely with Sapphire Coast Tourism and other visitor centres in the shire. We are not a commercial venture and there is limited ability to raise revenue,” Mr Sykes added. 

He pointed to a report commissioned by council in 2016 for a “Review of Tourism Services within Bega Valley Shire” which identified the VICs as operating on a minimal budget and stressed that they played a vital role in the tourism economy of the shire.

“Increasing the financial burden on the centres appears contradictory to this advice,” he added.

The new rents are a distinct departure from previous thinking in council.

Three years ago council drew up an agreement for the rental of the council managed, Crown Lands site in Merimbula, and council owned sites in Eden and Bermagui.

At its meeting in December 2014, council recognised the importance of tourism to the shire and its own role in investing in tourism stating that “a large rebate on market rental” was proposed for each of the buildings because the “organisations who manage the information centres are all not-for-profit with limited ability to raise revenue”.

The council report also highlighted the role of volunteers at the centres saying that a minimum annual rental was considered appropriate.

However more recently council has been focused on asset management, the cost of buildings and the effect on council’s budget.

Both Mr Philistin and Ms Neilson were quick to point out that the VICs have a bigger role in the shire’s tourism.

“We do more than keep people in town, we keep visitors in the Bega Valley, sending them to attractions in all parts of the shire,” Ms Neilson said.

Mr Philistin said that the economic value of the VICS was “significant”. He said the 60,000 to 70,000 people who went through the centre each year also bought coffees, had meals and made purchases in local shops.

“We want to continue to support the town and the retail businesses,” he said. 

All three representatives of the VICs are expected to give a presentation to council at the next meeting on Wednesday, August 30, however it is likely any decision will be deferred for further information.

This story Volunteer visitor centres see rent jump $6000 first appeared on Bega District News.