A trio of white knights look set to assume control of iconic Melbourne rock pub The Tote, which was scheduled to close its doors for the last time today.
In a prima facie offer posted late this morning on music website Mess and Noise, the current proprietors of The Old Bar, and the former managers of After Dark in High Street Thornbury, wrote of their willingness to assume the licence, following a public plea from current proprietor Bruce Milne.
“Joel [Morrison], Singa [Unlayiti] and myself would dearly love to sit down with you at some point and talk about this further. As you know we are running a very similar venue (although on a smaller scale) with very similar licensing.
“I think that if there is a baton to be passed along that the three of us would consider ourselves a sincere and reasonable group of guys to accept responsibility of The Tote,” wrote Liam Matthews on the online forum.
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Milne responded minutes later:
You guys would run it with the love and respect it deserves. If you can find a way, I’m there for you.
Milne, a stalwart of the Melbourne music scene, had previously spruiked for a new licensee to keep the venue open:
If someone can work out a way to keep the place open and deal with liquor licensing, I will work with them to make it happen. But it needs to be the Tote, not some lame-o version.
Milne told Crikey that he would be “happy” if the trio took over the venue but that it would need to be removed from the “high-risk” category that has led to liquor licensing fees and compliance costs skyrocketing.
In an article in this morning’s Australian Financial Review, The Tote’s millionaire landlord, Computershare mogul Chris Morris, said he was happy to keep the venue running under a new licensee. Matthews told Crikey he had contacted Morris but was yet to receive a response and a jump in running costs could still see the doors closed for some time yet.
An increase in liquor licensing fees of about $1600 was dwarfed by a requirement in Milne’s licence to have two security guards stationed at the Tote’s doors at all times — a near-doubling of his current annual expenses of $60,000. This came on top of the installation of “quality” CCTV cameras. Attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to revert the licence away from the high-risk category would slug Milne with about $15,000 in lawyers’ fees.
The “high-risk” ruling puts the venue in the same category as several King Street nightclubs, leading to calls for a more nuanced approach from Liquor Licensing Commissioner Sue McLennan. McLennan used the Herald Sun yesterday to defend her organisation against allegations of inflexibility.
And to add the burden on the much loved venue, which is believed to have been skirting close to the red for years, Crikey can reveal that Milne was also the victim of booze deal gone wrong at the hands of the Blueprint music festival.
Last year The Tote sold about $75,000 worth of beer to the festival, which later collapsed owing creditors hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite performance agreements with high-profile artists including Tim Rogers and Bertie Blackman.
Under a deal struck with Carlton and United Breweries, Milne told Crikey he is required to pay $500 a week to the brewery, and that while it wasn’t the main reason for shutting up shop, didn’t help the venue’s bottom line as he battled to keep it afloat.
It was contributing factor, especially in terms of fighting against liquor licensing. $500 a week is not insubstantial to a business the size of the Tote.
According to Ararat farmer David Powne, who hosted the festival, about 50 slabs of beer were stolen from a paddock at the festival site, with the Tote denied any of the proceeds from festival sales. Some of the beer made it back to Melbourne, while other slabs were allegedly sold by the festival’s organisers to a local supermarket to recoup costs.
Blueprint organisers Tristan and Aaron Grey went to ground after the festival’s demise in October, leaving a trail of angry creditors. Cheques issued by the brothers bounced despite claims that the festival was underwritten by their mother.
Yesterday, about 2000 Tote defenders protested in support of the beleaguered venue, which has launched the career of countless up-and-coming bands. City of Yarra councillor Steve Jolly and comedian Rod Quantock addressed the crowd, which was overseen by a police special response unit.
Curiously, no appearances were made by local Greens representatives, who are believed to be backing McLennan in her ruling on the Tote’s future. Greens Victorian upper house member Colleen Hartland has been vocal in her support for the commission’s crackdown on late-night venues in state parliament.
Today, in a last hurrah for Milne, 25 bands will perform across the pub in a 12-hour rock marathon, simulcast live on community radio.