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When the Petersham Bowling Club’s new board of directors decided to ditch their poker machines in 2006, they were told it couldn’t be done. The business model relied on the money reliably delivered by the pokies, ClubsNSW advised at the time; what they really needed to do was upgrade them.
Fifteen years later, the PBC is still there, still profitable and still pokies-free, and this weekend the inner west institution celebrates its 125th birthday – older than the Australian Federation.
I’ll drink to that: Petersham Bowling Club general manager Penny Ryan, bar manager Carl Manwarring and president George Catsi.Credit:Wolter Peeters
“We’re the alternate model where you go, ‘You can survive,’ ” says club president George Catsi, who is also a lifelong Sydney writer, performer and arts academic. “They all point to us now [and say], ‘But Petersham did it.’ ”
The club is known not just for surviving in an era when so many bowling clubs have bitten the dust, but for defeating two of Sydney’s seemingly unstoppable giants: poker machines and property developers.
Faced with plummeting membership and financial ruin in the mid-2000s, the club’s board twice attempted to flog the site for development.
The first proposal would have demolished the club, built 17 townhouses on the top green and reconstructed the club where the lower green was, with a new green on the roof. It was rejected by council as over-development.
South Australia v NSW women’s event at Petersham Bowling Club on March 26, 1936.Credit:Gordon Short / SMH
“The Petersham Bowlo is an inner west icon … It was locals who fought to keep the club in community hands where it has thrived.”
Two years later, the increasingly desperate board tried again with a plan to lease the lower green to Eddy Groves’ now-defunct ABC Learning for a childcare centre.
“Bowling clubs are a favourite for developers because they’re usually f—ed and on the way out,” then board member Paul Wade told the Herald at the time. “No one bowls here any more because they’re all dead. The place is empty most days.”
When that idea was also defeated, the board members who pitched it resigned en masse, and a new board was elected, including Catsi as president. He’s now on his second stint after a break.
“We had to survive on our wits,” says club president George Catsi, seen with general manager Penny Ryan. “We had to do things that actually brought customers in.”Credit:Wolter Peeters
The new board consisted of enthusiastic locals who had never bowled before and had minimal hospitality experience; Catsi once worked at a bar in London.
“We had a lawyer, a landscape architect, a teacher – we were a motley bunch,” he says. “We had our first board meeting and went ‘Geez, what have we done? What do we do?’”
One of their first acts was to switch off the poker machines at the wall and sell their licences. This was a controversial move at the time, especially among bowling clubs, but these days plenty of Sydney venues have forgone pokies – especially in the inner west.
The club was “loud and proud” about ditching the machines, and it worked. “We saw a bounce in the business where people were coming from out of area,” Catsi says. “They were telling us, ‘We’re coming to you because we want to go to a club with no poker machines.’ ”
Country Week bowling at the Petersham Bowling Club on January 18, 1972.Credit:Stuart MacGladrie / SMH
Anthony Albanese, the local federal MP, released a statement in 2016 marking 10 years since the club went pokies free. The now prime minister said the club’s birthday was an opportunity to celebrate both the venue and the people who love it.
“The Petersham Bowlo is an inner west icon. It has lasted for 125 years because it is sustained by passionate volunteers, members and supporters,” he told the Herald.
“It was locals who fought to keep the club in community hands where it has thrived. It is more than just a great place to get a beer: it’s where local bands get discovered and a hub of Petersham community life.”
Bowls NSW spokesman Billy Johnson said there were now about 470 registered bowling clubs in NSW – down from about 850 decades ago – with 45,000 members. He said clubs were looking to modernise the game and diversify their revenue streams after a tumultuous few years of COVID, floods and poor weather.
“We’ve had a decline in membership but we’ve been pleasantly surprised with how clubs have recovered post-COVID,” Johnson said.
Some clubs such as The Greens in North Sydney – which is blessed with stunning harbour views – have reinvented themselves with the times. Others opted for the path Petersham rejected – for example the 130-year-old Waverley Bowling Club, which is due to reopen next year after being redeveloped by Mirvac along with 55 luxury apartments for older people.
Balmain Bowling Club, the state’s oldest, says it will reopen in October, having been closed for more than a year. It amalgamated with St Johns Park Bowling Club in 2020, but a statement on the club’s website warns it “continues to experience substantial financial losses”.
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