Narooma residents say the impending closure of the NSW South Coast town’s visitor centre has cast doubt over the future of their Lighthouse Museum.
The centre will close its doors this May and subsequently, the museum will be forced to shut unless Eurobodalla Shire Council finds a new tenant who is happy to pay the market value.
Until now, the town’s visitor centre and museum have been run by volunteers from the Montague Arts and Crafts Society.
Former society president Judy Glover said she and current president Christine Macauley were the ones who applied to take over the centre when council considered closing it five years ago.
They wrote to Eurobodalla Shire Council in September 2020 saying the society would happily keep the museum open if it was permitted to continue its lease of the centre for a peppercorn rent, and open an art gallery inside.
“We delayed the centre’s closure five years ago by providing volunteers,” said Ms Glover. “They gave us one salary and we divided that by four.
“We did apply for a peppercorn lease in writing in September, but haven’t heard back. Because we’re a community group, we don’t have much money, but we would have happily discussed a small rent.”
As well as replacing the centre with an art gallery, Ms Glover and Ms Macauley would also reduce the opening days.
“Both myself and Chris are now in our 70s so keeping it open seven days a week is too much, but we would be happy to do four days a week, Friday to Monday,” said Ms Glover.
Ms Macauley said volunteers could continue to provide visitors with information via the gallery even though the building would no longer be a visitor information centre.
“A lot of people don’t use a phone and still like somewhere to go to get information,” she said.
Both women say they are upset by the lack of correspondence from council, as is the community which funded and established the museum.
The community has started a petition to keep both the visitor centre and museum open and nearly 900 people have signed it.
“Economically, I agree with council,” said Ms Macauley. “To be open 365 days a year is a big cost and a lot of penalties on the public holidays.
“But we have saved council a fortune over five years. They would have had to pay for multiple salaries like they did at Batemans Bay Visitor Information Centre.”
Despite not replying to the society’s letter, council did thank the volunteers for “their work over many years” at the meeting on 8 December, 2020, when it was decided Narooma and Batemans Bay’s visitor information centres would close.
Instead, visitor information will be provided online in a bid to “take information to visitors instead of making visitors travel to information centres”, according to Eurobodalla Shire Council’s manager of strategic growth, Elizabeth Rankin.
“Surveys found that less than 10 per cent of visitors to Eurobodalla use the visitor information centres, and they found it hard to find information, yet most of our tourism budget is going to visitor information centres and printed material,” she said.
However, at the same meeting, councillors decided to open the lease to expressions of interest and that the lease should be offered at market value.
Council says the Montague Arts and Crafts Society will need to follow that process if it wants to apply.
Whoever takes on the lease – Region Media understands there are multiple parties interested – will be required to maintain and manage the Lighthouse Museum.
“Council has not considered closure or alternative locations for the Lighthouse Museum,” said a spokesperson for Eurobodalla Shire Council.
“The building is the natural home of a significant collection of historic maritime items in a prominent location on the Narooma waterfront.
“The building was purpose-built for the light from Montague Island and this purpose remains. It’s why maintaining and managing the museum will be a requirement of any future lease of the building.”
Council’s museum advisor is currently undertaking a stocktake and condition report with the help of Narooma Historical Society to inform any new lease agreement, said the spokesperson.
Some of the museum items are privately owned and leased to council. This includes the key piece of the museum, the original light from the Montague Island Lighthouse, which is owned by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority.
While council has stipulated the museum must be preserved, Ms Macauley is worried the new tenant won’t maintain the same museum standards as the society’s volunteers have.
“I’m concerned whoever goes in won’t know they can’t touch or change it,” she said. “For example, if it was a cafe, would they know they can’t put tables and chairs in there?”