Rural pubs toast of WA

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Kate EmeryCountryman
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Ian Jeffrey outside the Exchange Tavern in Pingelly.
Camera IconIan Jeffrey outside the Exchange Tavern in Pingelly. Credit: Simon Santi

Ian Jeffrey’s impressive beard enters the bar of his historic Pingelly pub almost before he does, arms cradling a slab of beer destined for a waiting customer.

Neither of the men, who clearly know each other well, are too busy for a chat in the otherwise empty hotel bar — one of at least 25 WA country pubs on the market.

The scene, part social, part commerce, is one that plays out daily at pubs across the State in country towns where just about everyone makes it to the local at some point.

Just why so many of the State’s drinking holes are up for sale is not easy to say: arguably there are as many reasons as there are pubs.

Some ageing publicans said it was about moving on to the next phase of life. For others a change in personal circumstances, such as divorce or poor health, necessitated the move.

There are also those feeling the pinch in an industry where all the usual difficulties associated with running a business — a slowing economy, rising costs and red tape — are exacerbated by country life.

That includes the struggle to keep young people in some towns.

For Mr Jeffrey, who has run the Exchange Tavern for 14 years with his wife Jeanette, the decision to sell was about having time to pursue other interests, like opening a microbrewery.

The day-to-day demands of restoring and running the 110-year-old, 16-room Wheatbelt hotel meant there was “always something to do”.

“It’s a bit like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” he said.

“You get to the end and you’ve got to start again. We’ve tried to get it (the hotel) back to what we thought it would have been.

“They’re icons, you won’t find pubs like this in the UK or overseas — they’re Australian.”

Venues on the block span the State from Derby and Port Hedland to Quinninup and Katanning.

Price-wise, they run the gamut from Boulder’s Rock Inn, for $60,000, to the Palace Hotel in Southern Cross, advertised “from $3 million”.

At the family-run English-style Quindanning Hotel, Neta Lavender is another long-time proprietor looking for a change.

Over 12 years Mrs Lavender and son Rowan, who manages the pub, have quadrupled business, by their count, and introduced live music.

Now they hope to hand over the reins. “We set ourselves a 10-year plan when we took over and I guess we really reached most of the goals that we set,” Mrs Lavender said.

“We have a family farm as well and that business has expanded.

“I’ve got four beautiful grandchildren I’d like to spend more time with.”

Australian Hotels Association WA chief executive Bradley Woods said the number of country hotels on the market had been steadily increasing for years because of various issues, including rising operational costs and fluctuations in both the economy and populations of some towns.

“Hotels and taverns in regional areas are more than just the local pub — they are the heart of many towns, providing a place for families, friends or work colleagues to socialise or celebrate a special occasion over food and a drink,” Mr Woods said.

In the 1970s, Keith Brice was the State’s youngest publican.

Two years ago, he and his wife Elizabeth got back into the business when they bought the Bedford Arms Hotel in Brookton.

But bad health has forced the couple to sell after a meticulous refurbishment and just 10 months of trade, during which it picked up an AHA WA award.

“What sold us on this place is the proximity to Perth and the ability to bring people here on a daily basis,” Mr Brice said.

“It’s a changing industry that I was keen to get back into.

“The community spirit in country towns is unreal.”

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