How Coledale saved his RSL club – and sparked a community revival

It was bad at the Coledale RSL Club.

Paint was falling off the walls, revenue from the club’s 12 slot machines had almost completely dried up and there was no more money in the pot.

“The demographics have changed and the club hasn’t,” said Jeremy Pope, a new board member at the club, which is located north of Wollongong.

Some members of the club had died. Many had moved further south to enjoy their retirement on Sussex Inlet. And the board only had three people, not enough to get a quorum to make decisions.

The letter came after months of internal bickering between the branch board and the club over the future of the once-revered community center, which had hosted Anzac Day memorials and community meetings for decades.

“It is with great regret that the Board of Directors of your club announces the closure of the Coledale RSL Club,” Secretary to Director Warrick Try wrote to club members in early December 2022. “Despite many attempts to reverse the adverse trading outcomes, this has proven to be impossible.”

The club held one last Christmas raffle in early December, emptied the kegs in a big party and closed the doors.

But that wasn’t good enough for a small group of locals who saw the club as the focal point of the 1000-person suburb and feared the consequences of losing Coledale’s only pub.

So they acted and found they were part of a much larger trend: a revival of the state’s RSL clubs.

For the first time in more than four decades, RSL NSW membership is growing and the average age of members is falling.

In Coledale, Pope was keen to keep the club open so his soon-to-be 18-year-old son could have his first drink at a local venue. “A group of us thought it was worth saving up for once [the club]’ he said. “We asked how many people would be interested in volunteering and we had 40 or 50 answers at the time.”

They held an EGM at which members of the club (which is a separate entity of the Coledale RSL sub-branch) decided to sell half of their 12 poker machines.

The overwhelming vote to drop the six slot machines was the biggest sign something was about to change: over the years, Coledale RSL had carved out more and more parts of its venue for the machines, filling every blank wall with keno, horse racing and fake dog racing covered. There were six screens above the bar alone.

The sale of half the machines brought the club a cash injection.

The sale of half the machines brought the club a cash injection.Credit:Stefan Siewert

“They focused on the slots, and people here don’t play the slots as much as they used to,” Pope said.

By selling half of the machines, the club received a cash injection, which it could use to invest in a new coat of paint, among other things.

And then they got to work.

“It was hundreds and hundreds of hours,” said Donna Brown, a Coledale local and newly hired volunteer. “Painting, cleaning, filling up, organizing, coordinating rosters, a tremendous amount of paperwork.”

The volunteers altered the layout of the venue, shoved the six remaining slot machines into a sheltered corner (most club members eventually want to get rid of them all), created a children’s area, and proudly began decorating the walls that were once adorned with betting screens and a rotating list of local art.

The club’s sole employee — manager Dave Lynch, who previously saved the bowling club earlier from closure — drew up a list of spirits and beverages to be stocked at the bar, and soon more than 40 volunteers were being trained on their Responsible Service of Alcohol Certificate.

“When we started, they were all giggling like school kids, so nervous,” Lynch said of the volunteers. “But within an hour they told me what to do! They just opened up. I love it.”

Volunteer Donna Brown has volunteered hundreds of hours to ensure the club reopens.

Volunteer Donna Brown has volunteered hundreds of hours to ensure the club reopens.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Then came the long Easter weekend: opening.

“The opening days were absolutely amazing,” said Brown. “The atmosphere here was incredible. Everyone was happy. We didn’t have any problems. The food was fantastic. We sold out all groceries every day.”

Every evening a different food truck stood outside and supplied the entire venue.

“We had 25 people at the bar back then, which was certainly a competition for our volunteers,” Brown said. “We also had a fantastic meat raffle on Sunday night which is always popular here. We had live music. It certainly exceeded most of our expectations. And off we went.”

In their quest to revitalize the Coledale RSL, local volunteers (more than 80 have now signed up) have jumped on a wave of movement in clubs across the state. There are 320 sub-branches of the Returned and Services League in NSW, and around 135 of these have affiliated clubs (RSLs are registered charities, meaning they are not allowed to serve alcohol. RSL clubs are non-profit organizations that rent out the venue).


As more and more elderly veterans died, the RSLs struggled to maintain a strong membership base. Dozens of RSLs and clubs have been closed across Australia in recent years.

But something has changed in the last 12 months. Membership increased 11 percent from 24,716 to 27,431 by March this year, breaking an incredible 40-year downward trend. At the same time, the average age of the members has fallen from 78 to 72 years.

A spokesman for RSL NSW said the change in assets could be traced “directly” to the 2021-2026 strategic plan, which focuses on recruiting and funding new members and sub-branches through the creation of free memberships and a new funding model that is more supportive smaller branches.

Ray James, President of RSL NSW, added, “Census data shows that everyone knows of, or is connected to, a veteran who has served in some capacity: grandparent, partner, parent, sibling or friend.”

But Donna Brown, the volunteer, has another reason: Her clubs are back to serve her community.

“We’re not a gambling destination,” she said. “We are not a catering business. We are a club for locals. We are a community.”

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Justin Scaccy

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