MASTERPLAN: An artist?s impression of how the planned redevelopment of the Ballina RSL Club would look.
MASTERPLAN: An artist?s impression of how the planned redevelopment of the Ballina RSL Club would look.

Clubs vital to economy

The Lismore Workers Club may have saved teen golfer Emily Gray's career.

After years of training, Ms Gray, 19, is preparing to enter the world of professional golf through a PGA apprenticeship.

However, life could easily have been very different for Ms Gray -? if not for the Lismore and District Workers Club's decision five years ago to merge with the historic Lismore Golf Club, saving it from the risk of closure.

At the time the golf club, which was founded in 1903, was losing so much money it was struggling to maintain its course.

The intervention of the Workers Club in 2000 started a program to restore the course and a slow turnaround in the golf club's books, which Workers Club general manager Stephen Bortolin said would likely have them into the black within two years.

The Workers Club also merged with the ailing Lismore Bowling Club -? which has just recorded its first profit since the amalgamation.

The level of the mergers underline the size and power of the Workers Club which, along with the Ballina RSL Club, has emerged as one of the Northern Rivers' two 'super clubs'.

Individually, the clubs are among the biggest employers in their communities and are unrivalled in the spread of their charitable donations.

The Workers Club turned over more than $13 million last year, spending about $4 million in wages and benefits to its 200 workers.

Between September 2004 and August this year, the club made 203 donations to groups ranging from Lismore City Council to pre-schools totalling more than $270,000.

Ballina RSL turns over about $18 million per year, paying out more than $5.5 million in wages and benefits to 160 employees and more than $200,000 to a broad mix of groups ? most of which goes unpublicised.

Business leaders in Lismore and Ballina said the clubs' earning power made them vital to the region's economic health, while the facilities and donations the clubs provided made them crucial to their communities' social well-being.

Ballina Chamber of Commerce treasurer Brian Marriott said the RSL Club, the chamber and the town's new economic development unit regularly consulted each other about their activities and about the economic direction of the town.

However, despite the clubs' multimillion dollar turnovers and hundreds of employees, both operate on relatively slender profit margins and rely on gaming machines for more than half their revenue.

The Ballina RSL Club this year recorded a profit of $261,462 (cut from $575,000 by an air-conditioning breakdown), down from $564,455 in 2004.

Over the same period, the Workers Club recorded a profit of $710,188, up from $415,727 in 2004.

Both clubs say they are in a sound financial position, but fear the impact of rising gaming machine taxes.

Clubs NSW spokesman Jeremy Bath said the profits the clubs were making now were similar to the profits Lismore RSL Club was recording in 1997, when the State Government told pubs they could have pokies too.

Mr Bath pointed out that the collapse of a super club could have far-reaching consequences: Lost jobs, lost facilities for the community, lost trade for local suppliers and lost support for community organisations.

However, smaller clubs were more likely to fold than large clubs.

Mr Bath, whose group has been lobbying against the increased gaming taxes since they were announced last year, blamed the expansion of gaming machines into pubs in 1997 for the death of about 200 clubs across NSW, and said the tax increase could do the same again.

Ballina RSL Club chairman Bob Grant said on present figures, the tax would quickly outstrip profits, peaking at more than $1.2 million in 2011.

Mr Bortolin said his club, which earned less from gaming than the RSL, expected its annual gaming tax bill to have jumped by more than $645,000 by 2011.

Both are now looking for new ways to boost revenue and offset ris- ing costs.

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