Inner West Independent

The Italian stand-off

Stage set for a stand-off: the Italian Forum Cultural Centre. Photo: Novati Constructions

Six weeks after first announcing it had been “saved”, Leichhardt Council has signed off on a plan to sell the Italian Forum Cultural Centre to Co. As. It., an Italian community organisation, in a move that appears to defy the recommendation of the administrators, SV Partners.

Under the $2.2 million deal, all creditors would be paid out immediately except the council, which will take a deferred payment. The sale, if accepted by the administrators, will place the current tenant – the Actors Centre Australia – into uncertainty, because they have been unable to reach an agreement with Co. As. It. regarding a long-term lease.

In an interview, Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne said it was the right decision because it will put the facility in not-for-profit hands.

“It’s important to note that we [council] do not own or control this site, but as a substantial creditor, we tried to act responsibly to recoup our debt and to prevent the cultural centre being privatised,” he said.

“Council is willing to delay repayment of the debts we are owed in order to ensure that this remains a cultural centre for the benefit of the public, not a nightclub for a privately-owned business.”

Novati Constructions, which helped build the centre, made a higher offer which was preferred by the administrator, SV Partners. But Mr Byrne said SV Partners had “made it clear…that they would not object to a sale that involved all creditors being paid out”.

Stephen Hathway, SV Partners executive director, described the saga to date as “an Italian stand-off”. He legally retains the right to sell the IFL’s assets to the highest bidder, but said he won’t exercise that right at this stage.

“I haven’t got one contract in front of me that I can sign at the moment,” Mr Hathway said on Tuesday, before council’s resolution. “I can’t force something until I’ve got something to force.”

Mr Byrne said he hoped Co. As. It. and the Actors Centre can reach an agreement but that ultimately it was a matter for them. Rent and use of the facility’s limited space are understood to be the two stumbling blocks in their negotiations.

In a statement, Co. As. It. acknowledged they would now conduct renewed discussions with the ACA, along with “other notable arts organisations”.

“Our business plan is based on making the Italian Cultural Centre a hive of activity, drawing visitors and patrons for the local area as well as wider Sydney,” Co. As. It. president Lorenzo Fazzini said.

“We will not be able to do this on our own but with the right partner we will be able to stimulate both the cultural and economic life of the Norton Street precinct”.

Mr Fazzini recognised the needs of Co. As. It. and a performing arts organisation as “disparate but not mutually exclusive”. But with regard to an offer made by the ACA, he said: “We could not proceed with an arrangement that is not financially sound.”

In a letter to councillors sent the day before Tuesday’s resolution, ACA president Dean Carey described that offer as “commercially viable, sustainable and generous”. He said Co. As. It. “wanted double what we were offering, a sum which no arts organisation could afford to pay”.

Mr Carey’s letter said Co. As. It.’s business plan was an unknown entity, and accused Leichhardt Council of a lack of transparency around its decision-making.

“Why are they relying on a document that Co. As. It. has put together and why is nobody down here [at the Forum]?” he asked.

“I’ve had one person from council visit me on site, I’ve had one phone call from councillors, and one email returned.”

As this edition went to print, Mr Carey told the Inner West Independent the ACA will now commence legal action against Leichhardt Council.

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