It may have offended him to hear at the time, but Melbourne Airport Club president Allan Gerard wishes his former landlord, the Melbourne Airport Corporation, followed through on its promise to demolish the association’s Melrose Drive clubroom “the day after” it vacated four months ago.
“It breaks our hearts to look at it every day,” Mr Gerard said of the club’s former purpose-built venue – which members raised the money to develop on airport land in 1983 and operated as a social hub until relocating, curiously, to a council-owned site.
The not-for-profit Melbourne Airport Club was established at about the same time as the airport a decade earlier – famously, because there was nowhere to drink after 6pm around Tullamarine.
“This didn’t suit most of our members and visitors, airport staff, who worked shift and wanted to socialise before or after work,” Mr Gerard said.
To “suit their own needs” the establishment started in a tin shed on airport land.
Airport management was supportive of the initiative, Mr Gerard said – offering the club land at its southern edge to redevelop, then charging a negligible (peppercorn) rent, for decades, while also paying outgoings.
The brown-brick venue was licensed, and stayed popular, despite never having a major cosmetic revamp. Mr Gerard was proud it could survive despite later facing competition from licensed venues which set up within the main airport buildings.
But a change in strategy by airport management in recent years – including some who presided over a 2013 Master Plan aiming to make more profitable use of land around the edge of the 2369-hectare Tullamarine facility – made the Melbourne Airport Club a problem, Mr Gerard said.
The president knew the writing was on the wall when Melbourne Airport Corporation started offering year-to-year lease renewals after substantially increasing the rent close to the commercial rate, and passing on the outgoings to the club for the first time.
The Melbourne Airport Corporation’s master plan identified the airport’s southern boundary as attractive for commercial redevelopment.
Nearly four years later it is on track to redevelop the area as an activity centre with several major warehouses built, or under construction.
The Essendon Football Club took a 21-year lease on a huge site next door to the former Melbourne Airport Club headquarters. Its landmark True Value Solar Centre training facility opened in 2013.
Last April the airport unveiled plans for a 320-metre wave pool on the 33-year old Melbourne Airport Club site.
It was at that time Mr Gerard said the Melbourne Airport Club, at 309 Melrose Drive, was untenable. “We stopped taking bookings when we were told construction for the wave pool was waiting to start the day after we left”.
“We were also told the wave pool would be complete within twelve months of us moving out.”
Instead the building still stands, but looks ramshackle, damaged by graffiti and, according to Mr Gerard, is occupied by squatters.
The old club was on the edge of the airport grounds, which has now been earmarked for development. Photo: Melbourne Airport Club
The congenial president said he tried for some time to establish another base on airport grounds, but was challenged by the fact the club would need to pay for a new building it may lose down the track, like 309 Melrose Drive.
“We also realised pretty quickly that we’d be charged a market rent to be based on-site,” Mr Gerard said. “We would have struggled to afford that”.
Melbourne Airport Corporation representative Grant Smith said the Melbourne Airport Club was a social group started by airport staff, but it was never formalised as a branch of the airport business. Mr Smith said it was the right thing to do help refinance the club’s move, in light of it not electing to stay on the airport grounds.
Sensing the relationship with the airport had changed after more than 30 years, the club worked towards a Plan B with a new landlord this year.
“The airport let us off paying rent and outgoings toward the end of our lease period so we could build up a cash reserve to use for a move elsewhere,” Mr Gerard said. “It also donated us a cash amount”.
In the end the City of Hume council was a white knight, offering the Melbourne Airport Club a venue beside the Leo Dineen Reserve in Spring Street, Tullamarine.
Mr Gerard said the Melbourne Airport Club is faring well at the new address, which it shares with sporting groups.
“But it isn’t the same as a purpose-built venue grown by airport staff,” he added. “That worked beautifully for us”.
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