The Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre in Eden was recently served with a breach of lease notice by NSW Crown Lands after it was unable to pay the $1 million needed to make repairs to its wharf building, required as part of its lease agreement.
The centre was the head tenant in the iconic wharf building and it sublet to another nine tenants, including five food outlets, two government agencies, including the NSW Water Police, and two residential tenants.
NSW Crown Lands gave the centre 28 days to rectify safety issues with the wharf building despite the centre’s board repeatedly saying it is in disrepair and requesting for it be demolished, according to the board’s chair, Paul Whittock.
“We have said time and again the building is in a terrible state,” he said. “We’ve done routine maintenance as required since we took on the lease in 2008, but why spend on big projects if it’s going to come down?”
Mr Whittock said annual fire safety inspections, and inspections by their insurance provider, have always passed but NSW Crown Lands has produced a report stating the whole building is unsafe and its electrical wiring needs to be replaced.
Some of the sub-tenants remain in the building for now and Mr Whittock said there are “mixed messages” about when they will have to close and move out, or if they will be compensated for the interruption to their business.
The timing couldn’t be worse for the building’s tenants, he explained, following two temporary closures this year due to the Black Summer bushfires and COVID-19.
“This will rock Eden completely. It’s such a loss for the community. This has happened at a time when we are all at our weakest, with very little money,” said Mr Whittock, who added that the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre supported its tenants as best it could throughout 2020 and provided rent relief.
Trish Rowe, owner of Finny’s By the Wharf, one of the subtenants in the wharf building, closed her doors on Sunday, 27 September when she first got an email about the safety report.
“It’s devastating to have the rug pulled out from under us,” she said. “But we were not prepared to take the chance with public liability by staying open.”
The Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre closed its doors, dissolved its board and was taken over by administrators, but requested extended access so staff and volunteers had time to clear out, a timeline which ended on Tuesday, 6 October.
“Fortunately, we had one young man with his own tanks who has a lot of experience with sea creatures, who could take some of our bigger specimens,” said Mr Whittock.
“The remaining smaller creatures will likely have to be euthanised as we are not allowed to release them back into the wild.”
A statement from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment said it will work with the administrator, Sydney-based company Duff & Phelps, to explore options and address issues in the wharf building to ensure public safety.
A meeting between Member for Bega Andrew Constance and NSW Minister for Water, Property and Housing Melinda Pavey, as well as other interested parties, was held on Tuesday, 6 October via Zoom.
“We are sitting tight until we have more information,” said Ms Rowe, who was not invited to the meeting.
As for the Marine Discovery Centre, Mr Whittock said that while the board technically does not exist anymore, the three permanent staff and committed volunteers and board members will likely continue in their quest to educate about the South Coast’s unique marine environment.
“We may be able to go on in some way, perhaps how we started which was as a pop-up having a trailer at the Eden Whale Festival,” he said. “Or we could run some of our outdoor programs for schools, or continue as part of the wider network of environmental educators.
“But honestly, I don’t know what the future holds. We’re all still reeling.”