For half a century, the Waverley Bowling Club has welcomed members – some serious, some barefoot – onto its immaculately manicured greens, a few blocks from Sydney’s pristine eastern suburbs beaches.
But the future of the 124-year-old bowling club is now uncertain after a merger with the Eastern Suburbs League Club in 2010 – a move designed to ensure the smaller club’s survival – has left it fighting for just that.
The powerful larger club, which is home to the Sydney Roosters and has $65 million in assets, has its sights set on the development potential of the bowling club’s 1.1 hectares of prime real estate.
At an extraordinary general meeting next Tuesday, the Easts board will ask its members to vote to give the board almost unfettered power over the Waverley Bowling Club site, including the authority to sell or redevelop the land.
With the vote all but guaranteed to succeed, the move has devastated the junior partner whose small membership – around 450 at the time of the merger – is no match for Easts 41,000-strong membership base.
“We believed in Easts, in what they promised,” Bowling Club president Patrick Fitzsimons said. “It’s disgusting what they’re doing.”
Underlying the board’s bid is a plan to redevelop the Waverley Bowling Club into an aged care facility, with a child care and small club operating from the site.
Whether or not the redevelopment occurs, any future sale of the bowling club site will deposit a fortune into Easts’ coffers. In 2016, Catholic Healthcare paid $28.5 million for Maroubra Beach RSL bowling club, also a one-hectare site, with a similar plan to convert the club into an aged care facility.
As part of Easts’ proposal, the board wants to relocate Waverley Bowling Club to North Bondi, where it says it will construct two new bowling greens at the Bondi Golf & Diggers Club, which Easts acquired in a separate merger last month. It has promised to keep Waverley’s greens open until the North Bondi facility is built.
Easts’ chief executive Scott Bennetts said the venture would see a fully-funded “new state-of-the-art golf and bowling facility” developed at North Bondi, which would “ensure that the Waverley Bowling Club and the Bondi Golf & Diggers Club can thrive for decades to come.”
But whereas Waverley Bowling Club owned its premises in Birrell Street at the time of its merger with Easts, Bondi Diggers Club operates on public land subject to a crown lease due to expire in in December 2018.
Furthermore, Easts have been advised by Waverley Council there was no guarantee the Bondi lease would be extended.
Waverley Bowling Club vice president Rick Roper said the lack of certainty around the proposal meant the club was now “facing extinction”.
“No one knows what the result will be once the resolutions are approved. There’s no guarantees that they [Easts] will provide any clubhouse at Bondi, that there will be any future there.”
It’s not the first time Easts have sought to redevelop the Waverley site. Confronted with significant backlash from the local community, Easts abandoned a $100 million plan in 2014 to transform the site into a Roosters training facility with two 45-metre residential towers.
Founded in Bondi Junction in 1893, Waverley Bowling Club moved to its present location in Birrell Street in 1967. It was struggling with debt when it sought expressions of interests to merge with another local club in 2009, ultimately choosing Easts on the understanding the well-resourced club would be its saviour.
As part of its successful bid, Easts pointed to its successful merger with Kingswood Bowling Club in 1999 where it spent $4 million upgrading the facilities. Easts promised Waverley a similar investment, even distributing a document to the bowling club members with before-and-after pictures of the revitalised Kingswood Club showing its new bistro, function room, and gaming facilities.
Under the terms of merger, spelled out in a memorandum of understanding signed between the two clubs in 2009, Easts committed to preserving the bowling greens at Waverley for at least 20 years while investing and upgrading the premises to ensure it became “a modern premier club”.
Its plan for doing this was to “invest such money as is necessary over a period of time to allow the premises to become the premier club in Waverley and generally conduct the development in a manner such as it did at Kingswood,” the MOU said.
But the agreement included a significant caveat – that Easts’ undertakings were “subject to the profitability of Waverley’s premises.”
Mr Bennetts said the bowling club had not returned a profit since the amalgamation in August 2010, and had been supported out of Easts’ general revenue.
But the bowling club said that Easts had not upheld their part of the bargain and had made few improvements to the original 1967 clubhouse, beyond a modest kitchen renovation and some furniture upgrades.
“It’s had half a lick of paint on a couple of facades and an awning,” said Mr Roper.
“The carpet is still the same. They never even put in a disabled toilet,” Mr Fitzsimons said.
The bowling club also maintains it was climbing towards profitability, with annual reports showing the club had stemmed a $186,000 loss in 2011 to $19,000 in 2015. Easts did not publicly release Waverley’s trading results for the 2016 financial year and Mr Bennetts declined to provide them when asked by Fairfax Media.
Mr Bennetts also declined to detail how much money Easts had invested upgrading the club, as requested by Fairfax Media, but in written comments said Easts had spent “spent considerable funds on capital works” at the club.
“It’s hard to take,” said Mr Roper, who has bowled at Waverley for 31 years. “I’m a diehard Roosters supporter but I feel like our local club is ripping my heart out.”