Only way is up for new Mission to Seafarers CEO

Sean Car

Recently appointed Mission to Seafarers Victoria (MtSV) CEO Neil James says the opportunity to commercialise its heritage-listed venue, while continuing its core operation of supporting seafarers, presents both “a great opportunity and a great challenge”.

Mr James joins the Mission at a time when the North Wharf precinct that its Flinders St building sits within is undergoing significant transformation, with the neighbouring Seafarers development and soon-to-be-constructed Seafarers Park poised to change the face of the area. So too, will the City of Melbourne’s Greenline project, which seeks to reinvigorate the Yarra-Birrarung’s north bank between Birrarung Marr and Docklands.

But as conversations around reimagining the city’s maritime heritage have gathered pace in recent years, the council and the Victorian Government have sought the community’s insights on how the Mission’s iconic building might provide the nexus at North Wharf.

While both levels of government continue to determine the use, quality and type of function it might offer for future commercial and community activities, Mr James said the Mission was getting on with its own plans for opening up the building and supporting its beneficiaries.


A self-described “tragic boater” who currently serves as director of the Boating Industry Association of Victoria, Mr James has a wealth of experience working in both the private and not-for-profit sectors.


He told Docklands News that the opportunity to support and grow the Mission’s “critical” welfare services for seafarers, whom he said had suffered immensely during the pandemic, was largely what attracted him to the role.

“It’s a really fascinating organisation to be in because it has so many different parts. At the centre of it, is the welfare operation that we have with looking after the seafarers who visit Melbourne. It’s really critical and the core part of our business,” he said.

“Everything else we do is really around how we might fund, continue and grow that welfare work. So, that’s a great challenge.”

But at the heart of all its services, from the on-board chaplaincy work of its priests to its shuttle bus transporting seafarers to and from the city, is its headquarters here in Docklands, which Mr James said was still a relative unknown to many.

While its chapel and magnificent Norla Dome continue to prove popular for a range of functions, Mr James said the organisation was always keen to encourage more locals to come in, enjoy a drink from its bar and learn more about its work.

“No one really knows what the building is, but everyone knows it,” he said. “Particularly in a high-rise environment, it provides a really unique break out of that so it’s a fabulous building from that perspective.”

“The challenge is how we maintain and look after the building, and in that process try to commercialise the venue, which in itself is a great opportunity and a great challenge. At the moment, we’re heavily reliant on donations and charity of different descriptions through to the support from the industry, as well as public donations.”

“What we’d like to do is to actually move to that commercial operation to build the commerciality of the centre so we’ve got much more sustainability and are not necessarily dependent on charity and philanthropy to the same extent.”

Mr James said the Mission was also always on the lookout for any locals interested in volunteering, which he said was a vital part of ensuring its critical services continued. •

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