Old Hartley Street School looking safe for next decade

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

A compromise may have been reached that will help the National Trust keep the Hartley Street School – one of the few heritage buildings in the Alice CBD –  open to the public as a museum.

Following a deputation to the Town Council on Monday night by members of the local McDouall Stuart Branch, an offer has been made on the future leasing arrangements of the building, owned by council and leased to the National Trust for a peppercorn rent for the last 24 years.

The lease expires on July 31 this year. Critical to the negotiations it seems is the income the trust is able to generate from two tenancies in the building, some $36,000 a year when both are let (there is one vacancy at the moment).

While the museum, located in the octagonal northern annex of the building, is operated entirely by volunteers, the income is used in part to cover power, water and sewerage costs, minor repairs, insurance, and garden maintenance, amounting to about $6000 a year. The Trust generates its own income, about $3000, to pay for telephone, internet, photocopier, printing and postage.

The surplus from the sub-lease income is used to pay for heritage conservation activities both in Alice Springs (for example, the annual Heritage Festival) and in other parts of the Territory where heritage sites can’t generate income, such as in Tennant Creek and Newcastle Waters.

The trust was hoping for a new lease for 10 + 10 years over the whole building, and to retain the sub-lease income.

Committee and branch members turned up in good number of Monday night, with chairman Stuart Traynor and long-time committee member Dave Leonard articulately putting their case.

Questions from councillors concerned what the tenancy income was spent on and whether it was spent in Alice Springs (Deputy Mayor Brendan Heenan), the condition of the building (Crs Heenan and Geoff Booth) and the long-term sustainability of the volunteer effort (Cr Eli Melky).

This last was a “very tough question”, acknowledged Mr Traynor, the “Achilles heel for heritage conservation”.

Cr Melky also wanted to know what the branch would do if they didn’t get the tenancy income: would they accept a 10 plus 10 year lease without it?

Mr Traynor  said that would certainly change “the ball game”; it would be “difficult” but the current members are “committed people”: “I’m not saying we would walk away.”

Only Cr Liz Martin expressed solid support for the trust’s significant work in preserving the town’s and the Territory’s heritage. She was astonished at the low costs achieved by the branch, wondering whether they included an estimate for in-kind effort; she acknowledged that government budgets Australia-wide are tightening for heritage conservation and that this has seen the closure of too many community-based museums. She commended them for dong a “marvelous job”.

Committee member Laurelle Halford said that a rough estimate of the value of volunteer hours in keeping the museum open came to $35,000. This figure did not include the hours put in by committee members.

Mr Leonard said that over the period of the lease the trust had spent some $700,000 on maintaining and operating the building.

The trust had initiated negotiations of a new lease in October 2010, he said. But after a first meeting contact had been minimal. A letter from council in October 2011 indicated that the lease to the trust would be for the school museum area only, and that they would be provided with a draft lease agreement for comment. As of last Friday, that had not happened, said Mr Leonard.

Mayor Damien Ryan told the deputation that council would discuss the issues “later this evening”.  Some of them patiently waited but the open section of the meeting concluded without the matter being raised again. Whatever debate took place did so in the confidential section of the meeting and a decision was reached.

Yesterday a draft offer was made to the trust. Deputy Chairman of the branch, Loraine Braham (former MLA), told the Alice Springs News Online this morning that the offer is “not too bad” but requires  a number of clarifications before the trust can consider it in full. It is proposing a lease of five plus five years, with the National Trust continuing to be responsible for internal maintenance and continuing to receive the income of one of the tenancies.

The Hartley Street School operated from 1930 to 1965 when the school at Anzac Hill was established. It was originally constructed in 1928, with the northern end added in 1948.

Following Territory self-government, it was proposed to demolish it to make way for a carpark. A “Save Our School” (SOS) campaign,  led by the fledgling National Trust and the Rev. Tom Fleming, was successful in changing the mind of the government and having the school building restored.

The land on which the school is built was subsequently transferred to the Town Council as a Crown Lease in Perpetuity and leased to the National Trust in 1988, with the entire responsibility for the building resting with the trust.

 

Pictured from tpop: Dave Leonard (left) and Stuart Traynor in the Hartley Street School museum, kept open by volunteers six days a week. • From the street the museum gives an idea of what the mid-20th century Alice looked like.

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