TREASURED COURTHOUSE HOTEL LANGUISHES

In Changing Times by Clyde Mooney

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The heritage-listed and battle-trophy Courthouse Hotel Cairns has become a dormant site of itinerants and drug paraphernalia since Council purchased it from Pelathon last December.

Built in 1922 as part of a scheme to employ returning WWI soldiers, the building was Cairns’ official Court building until 1998, after which it was converted into a hotel.

ASX-listed entity Lantern Hotel Group put the Courthouse Hotel to market mid-2016, in the early stages of its turn-around scheme and eventual portfolio sell-down.

Jaz Mooney’s Pelathon, specialists in reviving strong regional operations, purchased the freehold going concern for $6.25m, citing strategies to actively engage with both the Council and community to reinvigorate the prized landmark.

Lantern proceeded with a mandated ASX announcement to shareholders, but before the transaction could settle Cairns Council issued a surprise press release pronouncing its “decision to implement our right to acquire the property” for a community arts centre, and claiming it had not had a chance to be part of the public sale process.

Despite objections, the sale to Pelathon went ahead in July, the price representing a healthy 28 per cent premium to Lantern’s book value, in recognition of its potential in the right hands.

But Council has firm plans to create the “arts capital of northern Australia” incorporating Cairns Regional Art Gallery and the former Mulgrave Shire Council building – and the Courthouse Hotel, which stands between them.

It confirmed to PubTIC plans to proceed with the compulsory acquisition, which it did in December, Pelathon vacating just prior to Christmas.

Due to regulatory requirements Council was not allowed to own the Hotel’s 35 poker machine entitlements, which were not included in the purchase price of $5.75m, but worth up to $1.6m for Pelathon under Queensland’s system for surrender sales.

There was discussion on temporary uses for the historic building or Pelathon continuing operation until plans finalised, but since Council’s acquisition it has remained unoccupied and increasingly the site of juvenile and homeless activity.

The Cairns Post predicted in December “if left vacant the building would quickly become dead space and a magnet for unsavoury behaviour” and now reports on the sorry realisation of its prophecy, noting piles of paraphernalia at the site, such as empty (highly alcoholic) vanilla essence bottles, deodorant cans empty after being inhaled, and graffiti on the building and surrounds.

“I made the comment about six months ago that it was important that we activate it and we shouldn’t leave it dormant,” Division 5 Councillor Richie Bates told The Post.

Although there is currently one CCTV camera on the site, Council is considering increasing surveillance and patrols, as it continues courting State Government for the necessary funds to transform the Courthouse into the centre of its visionary new arts precinct for the town of 85,000.