Drawing the distinction between Balmain Leagues Club’s campaign to remain at its historical home at Rozelle and the property developer who holds the key to the club’s future has been central to Wells Haslem’s strategy to help the Tigers.
It is the classic battle between the old world and the new, so often played out in modern metropolises.
On the one side you have a sporting club, its roots deeply set in what were once the waterside working class suburbs of Balmain and Rozelle.
On the other, you have the newcomers, affluent city professionals who have paid top dollar to live in their gentrified neighbourhood with its chic cafes, wine bars, pubs and expensive renovated terrace houses.
In between is a property developer hoping to build a major residential and retail complex in the heart of the Balmain-Rozelle Peninsula.
The sporting club, Balmain Leagues Club (BLC), has called the corner of Victoria Road and Darling Street, Rozelle (one of Sydney’s busiest peak-hour intersections) home for more than 50 years.
However, the cold winds of the Global Financial Crisis, an obstinate local council, and poor planning decisions by the former NSW State Government, forced the Club – a foundation member of what is now the National Rugby League – to abandon its spiritual home and take up temporary residence in Five Dock and Homebush.
In 2008, BLC won approval from Leichhardt Council to redevelop its Rozelle site, following four years of discussions with the Council.
By this stage, BLC had already weathered a major issue - its construction company, Reed Constructions, and financers, Lehman Brothers, had pulled out of the redevelopment due to the GFC and the club went into receivership.
A financial lifeline emerged in the shape of club legend and then board member, Benny Elias, who put together a consortium, Rozelle Village Pty Ltd, to take over the massive reconstruction of the Rozelle site. Benny left the club Board to avoid a conflict of interest.
In February 2009 NSW Minister for Transport David Campbell announced the Sydney Metro rail system and that Balmain Leagues Club would be used as a construction site to build Rozelle Station.
Despite confirmation on 1 February 2010 by the Office of the NSW Premier, that the Metro would be proceeding, in mid-February the NSW Labor Government signalled the likely scrapping of the Sydney Metro rail stop at Rozelle. This was devastating for the Club, which had notified its 18,000 members of its temporary closure, laid-off staff, and entered into commercial arrangements with the two other venues.
BLC Tigers now operates from two smaller satellite clubs – Tigers Five Dock and Tigers Sydney Markets, in Homebush.
Under the deal struck with the Rozelle Village consortium, the BLC will remain at Rozelle as a tenant in a major development that would include a Coles Supermarket, childcare facilities, a gymnasium, restaurants, other retail outlets and two 20-storey residential towers.
It is the height of the development that has upset some locals, who argue it is out of character for the Rozelle-Balmain precinct and will add to already heavy local traffic. This culminated in 600 angry Rozelle residents staging a protest rally in June 2012.
The Rozelle Village has submitted multiple new plans to modify the building addressing many community concerns. These revised plans are currently being considered by the NSW Government appointed Planning Assessment Commission.
The Tigers came to Wells Haslem late last year, seeking our advice on how best to communicate its case to a range of stakeholders including local residents, the NSW Government and the media.
At the heart of our strategy was the need to emphasise that the club is not the developer.
It does not own the site but does need the development to get the green light if it hopes to return to Rozelle and remain financially viable.
A successful outcome will ensure the club’s members have access to modern facilities and that the Rozelle site will remain a centre of social interaction in Sydney’s inner-west.
The club will be financially viable and able to continue to support junior rugby league, so important in encouraging children to participate in sport and stay fit and healthy, and remain part of the Wests Tigers NRL franchise.
In a mail out to members, inviting them to send in submissions to the Planning Assessment Commission, and in media releases and media interviews, the club emphasised the Tigers’ historical links to the local area and that it is part of the community fabric.
It is something worth preserving.
8. Keeping the Tigers in Rozelle: Balmain Leagues Club's fight for survival, Benjamin Haslem