Turnout proves ‘Conti’ dear to Sorrento’s heart

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CONTINENTAL Hotel owner Julian Gerner being interviewed at the community meeting in Sorrento.

CONTINENTAL Hotel owner Julian Gerner must have been warmed by the strong showing of support he received at last week’s public meeting in Sorrento, however cool the prospects of a quick sale of the derelict icon are in its half-finished state.

Mr Gerner appeared to be the star of the show in the packed Sorrento Community Hall on Sunday 30 June, as he explained to a seemingly sympathetic audience of 400 how his development plans had come to a halt.

He talked up the prospects of a buyer being found by the end of this month able to stump up the $25 million asking price and resilient enough to run the gauntlet of planning, heritage and legal strictures to get the 1875 landmark into a viable state.

Doubtless the difficulties are not lost on “career-hotelier-since-1997” Mr Gerner, who said in a media release the stalled restoration and expansion had “created some complexity around commerciality and funding”.

The collapse of joint venture partner Steller in mid-May must have rocked Mr Gerner because, up until then, he had stated he was “in it for the long haul” and that while work had stopped before Easter because of a “gap in funding arrangements” the necessary funds were “in the pipeline for the next stage of construction” (“Conti work stalls as developers chase cash” The News 6/5/19).

The decision to put the project onto a shaky market through Colliers International – albeit with plans and permits in place – is a turnaround and may prompt doubters to shake their heads as their worst fears are realised and say: “I told you so.”

Upbeat as ever on Sunday, Mr Gerner said the “Conti” was his seventh heritage hotel project to which he has devoted “four years of tireless work” after paying $13 million for it in 2015. He estimates he and his backers have spent $40 million on extensive heritage, legal and planning approvals and construction works.

“The hotel [and an adjoining property at 23 Constitution Hill Road] will be sold with existing plans and permits and the new buyer cannot change anything,” he told the audience – words they clearly wanted to hear.

“These are hard-fought approvals that cannot be neglected.”

To applause, he added: “I remain passionately committed to the project [which has a notional completion date of late 2020].

“My intention is to deliver the asset as envisaged.”

Compounding the risk in the meantime are the potentially damaging effects of the cold, wet weather which is seen as a real threat to the local limestone in its exposed state. Some at the meeting worried the four-storey structure might simply sink into its soggy foundations and be lost forever.

Deputy chair of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and Nepean Conservation Group president Ursula de Jong hosted the meeting alongside Mornington Peninsula Shire planning and building director David Bergin, National Trust of Australia (Victoria) advocacy manager Felicity Watson, Nepean MP Chris Brayne and Mr Gerner.

Dr de Jong spoke of the Victorian and Italianate hotel’s development under businessman and impresario George Coppin and its role and function as a centrepiece in the town’s rich architectural and social history.

She said plans for its long-overdue redevelopment under Mr Gerner had been welcomed by the community, although many would have preferred a smaller revamp, possibly without the rear apartments, wellness centre and penthouses.

Ms Watson urged the community not to allow the building to fall to such a degree that its protection was threatened. She said weekly inspections must ensure the site was secure against intruders and complied with engineering and safety standards.

Mr Bergin said the shire had concerns regarding weather exposure and water run-off and was liaising with Heritage Victoria to protect heritage areas. He said a reputable private building inspector had jurisdiction over new works. The shire’s engineers, planners and a surveyor were inspecting the walls weekly.

“It’s an iconic building and we are working with a private building surveyor, Heritage Victoria and Mr Gerner to ensure it is protected and that we get construction going again soon,” he said.

Dr de Jong said later the meeting had been excellent, with those attending showing “just how concerned the community is about the current abandoned state of the [hotel]”.

“While much information was provided, the meeting raised questions relating to the oversight and risk management of the site, and who actually has the overall responsibility and accountability of the project.

“[Mr] Gerner’s timelines are very aspirational: [expressions of interest] close 26 July, contracts to be exchanged in August, work to begin in spring. He acknowledged the building is not currently weather proof.

“Further, [Mr] Bergin portrayed the shire as having little power to ensure that the private building surveyor overseeing this project took all steps necessary to protect its heritage.

“As the site straddles both state and local government jurisdictions … we have always been told by the shire that Heritage Victoria is responsible and [it] has told us the shire is responsible.

“The community needs the councillors’ and the shire’s proactive support to ensure that the Conti survives this winter and does not fall through jurisdictional cracks. It is time the shire stepped up and took its responsibilities seriously.”

Suggestions from the audience that a “community buy-back” of the hotel be arranged were warmly, although sceptically, received by Mr Gerner who said tongue in cheek: “Welcome to the Continental Hotel crowd-funding campaign”.

Former Liberal Party candidate for Nepean, Russell Joseph had an alternative view: “The state government should utilise community funds – taxes we have already paid – to underwrite the costs required to complete the necessary building works to ensure the protection and preservation of this iconic heritage building.

“Without this investment the site will likely degrade beyond repair, will be worthless, and the Conti will be gone.”

Mr Brayne acknowledged the town was “in a state of limbo” until the building was sold or works completed. He promised to advocate to the state government for more officers for Heritage Victoria to ensure works such as the Conti were adequately policed.

First published in the Southern Peninsula News – 9 July 2019

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