With calls for less reliance on gambling, Canberra's clubs are left with few options but to develop their land, the chief executive of Clubs ACT Jeff House said on Tuesday, defending plans to sell the Canberra City Bowling Club in Braddon.
The Ainslie Group has been criticised by high-profile bowling club members and Braddon residents John Mackay and Peter Conway over plans to sell the bowling club site on prime Braddon land – although the group said Mr Mackay's suggestion it could be sold within a year was "premature", with "nothing on the table".
The club is just one of a number taking advantage of the government's willingness to let them change their leases to commercial uses and develop or sell. Just down the road, the Raiders plan an $80 million development including shops, restaurants, offices and 160 apartments on the site of the club they closed in 2013. The Brumbies courted controversy for developing their site in Griffith, and the most recent lease change was for the Italo Australian Club in Forrest.
Clubs were set up with "concessional" leases for less than market value given the community benefit of what they do, but many have jumped at the chance to deconcessionalise, sparking criticism about profiteering on the back of land they got cheap.
But Mr House said clubs were facing demands to reduce their reliance on gambling and had no choice.
"Clubs want to diversify and are happy to rely less on gaming, but there needs to be some consensus around how clubs are going to be able to do that, and that's going to have to involve use of the land that they have," he said.
"Fundamentally, we can keep having these discussions and in some cases arguments about this particular club or that particular club in relation to their assets, but unless we address the underlying environment which forces clubs to make these decisions we'll keep having the same discussion over and over again."
Across the city's clubs, gambling revenue was down by about a third since 2006, and food and beverage revenue was declining.
"Something's got to give. The clubs can't keep maintaining non-profitable costly infrastructure if the revenue isn't there," he said. "They are in the position right now where they are forced to make some very very difficult decisions."
Asked whether clubs should be able to make windfall profits on land they got at a concessional rate, Mr House said the Braddon bowling club had been on the site for 85 years so the community had already derived a significant benefit from its concessional status.
Ainslie group president Malcolm Scholes said the club was losing $100,000 to $150,000 a year and the Ainslie group could not afford to keep propping it up.
Group chief executive Simon Patterson would not release details of the financial position, but said the club was not viable "and has recorded successive losses over a number of years on a scale that we can no longer afford to carry".
"Further, in the context of these losses, it does not make sense for the Ainslie Group to maintain two venues less than two kilometres apart," he said. "Like all businesses, we need to change and be prepared to make hard decisions."
It was unlikely any profit would be made from the sale given the amount the group had spent on the club over the years.
Bowling club president Bob Powell said while members were disappointed, they had been assured the club would continue to operate at a different location and realised the move was dictated by commercial realities. The Ainslie Group plans to move the greens to Gungahlin.
In Turner, the newly merged Canberra North Bowling and ACT Rugby Union Club is trying a different tack to stay relevant. Secretary manager Jeremy Wilcox said it was now pitching itself at families and younger people, and overhaul in its early days but one which looked to be working.
"We're giving it our absolutely best shot and it's proving successful," he said. "The numbers of people bowling is a surprise to us all."
Asked about progress on the Raiders club site closer to the city, general manager Simon Hawkins said the Raiders had made a development application and were awaiting a decision on whether they could buy a section of kerb to make the site symmetrical before it was finalised. Meantime the site was making a profit as a car park.
A government spokesperson said for a lease to be deconcessionalised, the planning minister must decide it was in the public interest and a payout would be set.