J'ville RSA makes last stand as membership thins

Johnsonville RSA member Fraser Mitchell says he would be devastated if it closed.
Johnsonville RSA member Fraser Mitchell says he would be devastated if it closed.

The last truly independent Returned and Services' Association in Wellington city will have to close its doors before Christmas if it cannot pull itself out of a deep financial hole.

The Johnsonville and Districts RSA is holding a public meeting tomorrow to brainstorm ways of staving off insolvency, which has been looming since June. To do so, it needs between $20,000 and $40,000.

It is not the only RSA sweating through a tough economic climate. At least six others are facing serious financial strife.

Johnsonville RSA club manager Gary Roberts said the association, formed in 1933, would have gone bust a few days ago had it not been for $3500 of personal funds he and a few others pumped into it.

"It was enough to satisfy the auditors - for now," he said. "But we need to come up with a more permanent solution, before the end of December really."

Johnsonville had just over 600 members but saw only 100 to 150 regularly. "If all 600 of them came in each week and bought a beer then we'd be right."

It was the only RSA left in Wellington city that had not already merged with another club or association to keep its head above water, he said.

It was suffering through a tight economic climate and a lack of "new blood" as natural attrition ate away its core membership.

He feared these factors could signal the end of all RSAs. "Public perception is the real killer. A lot of young people think we're just a booze hall for old fogeys."

He was disappointed by what he saw as a lack of support from the national RSA. He approached it months ago with the idea of creating a "social membership" to bring some money in, but the NZRSA would not approve it.

His plan would have involved a $20 membership, instead of the full $55, which would allow people to enjoy the club's services but not vote on association matters.

NZRSA chief executive Stephen Clarke said the national body wanted local RSAs to add value to their memberships, rather than make them less inclusive.

He confirmed it was aware of about six RSAs, out of its 180 associations, that were struggling financially, but he declined to name them.

"There's also a good number that are investing in their properties, opening up restaurants and trading very successfully."

The NZRSA has just over 110,000 members, 70,000 of whom do not have a service background. In 2011-12 its membership declined by 4000, the first fall in three years.

A year ago, it rebranded itself with an emphasis on modernising and being more inclusive, by improving food options and encouraging younger members.

Featherston RSA president Garry Thomas said his branch also was in financial trouble, and preparing to refinance by leasing out its restaurant bar area and remortgaging.

Seatoun RSA and Bowling Club president Trevor Smith said the club was struggling, and looking to appeal to the wider community.

Dwindling patronage also forced the Wainuiomata RSA to call for community support in October.

The Dominion Post