By Danielle Kutchel and Cam Lucadou-Wells
Dandenong-Cranbourne RSL has outraged members by selling off its Cranbourne venue after a staggering $1.3 million financial hit during Covid-19.
President John Wells said Covid had “brought to a head” the sale of the Cranbourne venue – an entertainment complex with bistro, bar and gaming that had suffered “exponential” recent losses.
The RSL had lost $11 million at Cranbourne in a decade – including $7 million invested on improvements
The hand-over to an undisclosed buyer was expected to occur mid-2021. “Nearly all” staff will be retained by the new owner, Mr Wells said.
The sub-branch would then move out, with plans to find a new and smaller Cranbourne home “more focused on direct veteran needs”.
It would retain its Young Veterans warehouse in Station Street, Anzac Day football matches and plans for a “memorial park of national significance”.
“We’re selling a building but the sub-branch will still operate,” Mr Wells said.
“It’s a setback but not the end of the world. And it’s not the end of Cranbourne having a sub-branch.”
The sell-off was losing him friends among the RSL ranks, he said. It was opposed by a “vocal entrenched group”, though 90 per cent of Cranbourne members were opposed.
“We can’t afford to lose money that we need to do what we can for veterans.
“Cranbourne was losing more than Dandenong is making.”
Cranbourne RSL members expected the sale to be a hot topic for discussion at the recent AGM – however they were left “disappointed” when questions about the sale were rebuffed, according to members in attendance.
Donna Lester, manager of the Cranbourne RSL, said members and staff were “none the wiser” about the future of the venue after the AGM.
“We have no outcome, we still don’t know what’s happening with Cranbourne RSL – we don’t know if it’s been sold, if that’s on the agenda, or where our jobs lie,” she said.
She claimed President John Wells did not open general business at the AGM, instead sticking to the agenda items and only taking questions on those.
According to Ms Lester, a member tried to pass a motion at the meeting to have it postponed for four weeks so all avenues could be exhausted with regards to Cranbourne RSL’s future – however, Mr Wells dismissed it.
The same member also tried to pass a motion that the AGM did not meet the constitutional guidelines of the RSL, as less than 28 days’ notice of its occurrence had been given, but Ms Lester said Mr Wells shut that down too.
She said Mr Wells offered to meet privately with Cranbourne staff and members to discuss the closure, but that questions on the sale at the meeting were “shut down”.
She described the AGM as ultimately a “waste of time” for Cranbourne staff and members.
“I was hopeful that we may have an answer today one way or the other, maybe get some clarity or transparency as to what was going on for us to prepare ourselves to move on,” Ms Lester said.
“We’ve been in this state of limbo since 31 January with no support from Dandenong as to how we as a group of staff feel.
“There’s just a big question mark at the moment.”
Another member, who wished to remain anonymous, said members and staff of Cranbourne were left “disappointed” by the meeting.
Mr Wells said he dismissed the motion to put a stay on the sale, because it had not been listed on the meeting’s agenda. The club’s financials were however viewable on appointment, he said.
“They don’t accept that Cranbourne is making a loss,” he said.
“I get upset when people say they want to see the books.
“No one else gets more audited than an RSL gaming club. There’s a suggestion that we’re being dishonest – and that’s offensive.”
In the 2020 calendar year, the Dandenong and Cranbourne sub-branches suffered a collective $1.372 million deficit.
In its financial report, the loss was attributed to “Government lockdowns” and not trading for most of the year.
Revenue plummeted from $15 million to $4.5 million during the year.
Pokies revenue took the biggest hit, down from $9.6 million to $3 million – as well as bar sales, food sales, keno, TAB, fundraising and donations.
At the same time, Dandenong-Cranbourne RSL trimmed expenses by $4.6 million.
Spending such as on employee benefits, advertising, rent, welfare and charitable donations reduced from $8.7 million to $4.1 million.
“We were still able to provide welfare,” Mr Wells said – though its generosity was more restrained.
“We’ll wear the cost like most people. A lot of the RSLs are in the same boat.
“If restrictions don’t get any worse, we should meet our welfare commitments this year.”
Mr Wells said business had been picking up quickly in the months between the second Covid wave and the recent circuit-breaker lockdown.
“We’ve weathered the storm, a very painful storm.
“We had people who died who we didn’t give the usual pomp and circumstance.”
Ms Lester said she and her staff remain “committed” to their role in the community despite the upheaval of the sale.
“We work for RSL for a reason, we feel like we work for a purpose,” she said.
“We’re a profit-for-purpose, where our profits go back into welfare and the community.
“I feel that at this point the core value of the RSL is not even being looked at … that’s why we’re fighting for our lives here, and for the community.”
Meanwhile, Anzac dawn services as well as the day services will be held at the Dandenong and Cranbourne clubs this April.
Unlike past years, there will “almost certainly” be no Anzac march to the Pillars of Freedom in Dandenong, Mr Wells said.
Mr Wells said there won’t be a repeat of 2020’s cancellation of public Anzac Day services due to the Covid lockdown.
“We can’t just do nothing on Anzac Day two years in a row,” Mr Wells said.
“It’s too culturally important.
“Our members are unanimous that we have to do something.”