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August 09 Edition Cover

Charter operators say they’re being squeezed out

31 Jul 2009

Charter operators say  they’re being squeezed out Image

Docklands’ charter boat operators feel they are being squeezed out by bureaucratic ignorance and indifference.

For the past decade they have been doing it tough with only month-to-month certainty but were reassured by what they claim were Government promises that formal leases would be eventually forthcoming.

But with commercial berthing now being handled by the City of Melbourne, the council says it knows nothing of any assurances that may have been given and is opening up the entire precinct to open competition.

The council is currently proceeding with a small first stage of a process which will eventually force all charter operators to compete for their berths.

The operators are outraged, believing that the council is bound by assurances they say were made by the Docklands Authority as far back as 1998 and more recently reinforced by VicUrban before the berthing jurisdiction was passed over to the council two years ago.

Charter boat operator and Docklands Chamber of Commerce president Keith Rankin has branded the council’s competitive process a lie and has accused VicUrban of acting unethically for supporting the process.

The competitive process is a recommendation of the Docklands Co-ordination Committee which comprises both council and VicUrban representatives.

“There has been no consultation or discussion with us about this process,” Mr Rankin said.  He said the first the operators knew about it was on the day of the Docklands Co-ordination Committee meeting when they were “tipped off” that it was being discussed.

He said former Docklands Authority general manager Peter Anderson and marketing director Andrew Gibb enticed the charter boat operators to Docklands in 1998 with an assurance that leases would be available within four or five years.

Mr Rankin said VicUrban general manager Michael Hynes and place management director Marcia Harkins assured the charter operators that they understood their position but couldn’t offer leases until the, now completed, Docklands Waterways Strategic Plan was in place.

However, VicUrban denies that any assurances were made and the City of Melbourne says it is unaware of pre-existing arrangements or agreements.

“The only guarantee given to boat operators by Michael Hynes and Marcia Harkins and others was that an area would be allocated as a permanent commercial berthing zone. There were no conversations about which or how operators would be selected to occupy this area, or when it would be developed, as this is subject to market forces and funding,” VicUrban said.

City of Melbourne chief executive officer Kathy Alexander told the Docklands Community News that nothing was mentioned about this when the council took over the municipal function in 2007.

“I don’t know what they’ve been promised, by whom and under what circumstances. 

If indeed they have been promised anything, then that would need to be a legally binding contract,” she said.

“If they were promised something by VicUrban then I imagine that their discussion is with VicUrban,” she said.

The charter boat operators say their rents have increased by more than 300 per cent from when Port of Melbourne Authority passed the function to the Docklands Authority in 1998.

Mr Rankin said operators in Docklands, with little or no facilities, paid twice as much in rent as some fully equipped marinas interstate.

He was furious when told that Dr Alexander believed the Docklands operators were not paying any rent.

“What planet is she on,” he said. “She is using ignorance as an excuse to ride roughshod over the top of us.”

Charter boat operator Jeff Gordon said the group of family-owned businesses had built the industry up in Docklands but now risked losing everything to outsiders who had contributed nothing.

“How would it be if they did the same to the restaurants in Docklands – throw open the whole thing again and say we want you to re-submit?” he said.  “That’s how it should be seen.”

“Here we are as family-run businesses, operating hand-to-mouth on a month-to-month basis and now they’ve thrown all the balls in the air saying show us your business plans and show us everything else because we want to see where you’re coming from.”

“And my biggest concern is who is going to sit in judgement?  Is that going to be a bureaucrat or a group of bureaucrats?  Is it going to be an industry peer body?  Or is it going to be the city councillors?  Nobody has the understanding of this business as we have the understanding.”

Mr Gordon said: “We’ve been promised over these past 10 years a proper docking hub where all back-of-house facilities would be provided, including pump-out, storage, access for contractors and ticketing so it would be easy for people to find us – like in Sydney where all the charter boats operate in one area.”

“We feel like we’ve been pushed around by whatever government body might have been in charge and also by the developers who have been given the first pick of the cherry.  So where they’ve moved in, they’ve shunted us out.”

He said there was a distinct negativity towards the charter boats and an under-appreciation of what they had done for Docklands.

“We are all family businesses and individuals.  The opportunity is there to push us around.  And we’ve allowed it to happen.  We’ve been fragmented in our response to things.  We haven’t been co-ordinated,” he said.

“I think this is an unfair process that they are entering into during a very difficult time for us. Our berthing should be our right.  Like any business, we should have a home.”

“We all agree that competition is good for business.  But we are already competing and our products are competing.”

“We’re just trying to survive and are already cut to the bone.  We don’t feel like there has been any room in the plan for us in Docklands.”

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