Not even a flood could wash away the dreams of three men determined to save the future of Wollombi and its historic tavern.
When you invest in buying a pub the last thing you expect is a flood to wash your dream away before you’re even handed the keys. For many, seeing a newly-bought business underwater might be enough to drown their enthusiasm, but not for business partners Stefan Cordiner, Andrew Turnbull and Trent Robinson, who recently acquired Wollombi Tavern in the Hunter Valley. Instead, they saw it as an opportunity to create something even better.
When the north-arm of Wollombi Brook broke its banks more than 50 metres downhill from the Wollombi Tavern in July this year, it caused the worst flooding the area has experienced in the past 70 years. So high was the water, it peaked at the gutters of the historic pub causing catastrophic damage to the building and requiring the Australian Army’s assistance with the recovery.
“When we decided to take on renovating the pub, our whole idea was to embrace not just the history of the pub but to help re-invigorate the town itself after a few tough years,” Cordiner said.
“The original tavern was from 1868, and then it became part of the Jurd’s legacy in the 1920s. It was the beating heart of the town and a key community hub and we wanted to bring it back to those glory days.
“So, when the flood came through in some ways it was a blessing in disguise because when the water subsided, the pub was so far gone we had to strip everything out and start again. When we did, we found all the original hardwood linings and original fixtures, which lent themselves to our original vision.
“Obviously, it was a lot more work and a much larger investment than we had anticipated, but this was a heartfelt acquisition from the beginning, so no flood was going to stop us from creating our vision for the pub and the local community."
“When the flood came through, in some ways it was a blessing in disguise because when the water subsided the pub was so far gone we had to strip everything out and start again. When we did, we found all the original hardwood linings and original fixtures, which lent themselves to our original vision” - Stefan Cordiner.
“I’ve lived here for 43 years and am only just becoming a local,” Turnbull, an overseas resort owner and entrepreneur, said.
“I love Wollombi, and the tavern is the heart of it. There are not many places I’ve been to where there is a total disregard for financial status. Everyone is just who they are. All anyone here cares about is whether you’re a good community member and that’s it.
“I love the community, and so for me, buying the pub and investing in it is just one of the ways we can support Wollombi.”
Buying the pub was a strategic move for the trio.
“Although this is the first time the three of us have bought a pub, we do have an accommodation business together,” Cordiner said.
“We are building off-grid accommodation pods with a view to driving longer-term stays in rural destinations like Wollombi.”
Cordiner said small towns like Wollombi often struggle with heavy ‘weekend-only’ tourism that is leading to growing infrastructure strain on weekends, impeding local residents and negatively impacting the community.
“A key part of increasing longer-stay tourism is to ensure the availability of food and beverages seven-days-a-week for visitors, especially in the evenings,” he said.
“The Wollombi Tavern is one of the few businesses in Hunter Valley which offers that. We hadn’t intended to acquire the tavern but the opportunity came up and we thought we could do something great with it whilst also supporting our vision.”
Their overarching vision is to make Wollombi one of Australia’s most loved and liveable rural towns. They have developed a destination management plan with the local Wollombi Valley Chamber of Commerce which focuses on three pillars, including celebrating the area’s history, embracing the town’s community spirit and rural charm and highlighting local craft like winemakers, artisans and artists.
The tavern is now a central piece in their vision and will capture these three pillars.
“Our hope is by investing in the pub, it will have a positive halo effect on all the businesses in the village as well as the residents,” Cordiner said.
Stage one of re-building the pub was managed by Robinson - a Newcastle-based builder who said he quickly came to understand his business partners’ affection for the area.
“Their emotional attachment to the pub was something I didn’t really appreciate until the build started,” he said.
“I realised then this place is a lot more than a pub. It really is an integral part of the community and it was rewarding for me to see it start to come back to life.
“In saying that, the 10-week build was a massive challenge. When floods go through, you are looking at total decimation.
“When we first walked in, it was a case of scratching our heads and asking where do we even start? The mud had found its way into everything - all the joints in the timber and the stench was unbelievable. We had the fire going from start to finish to try and diffuse the smell.
“But once we did start peeling back the layers the natural beauty within the building was still there and it gave us all the energy to make things happen and see its true potential.”
“I realised then this place is a lot more than a pub. It really is an integral part of the community and it was rewarding for me to see it start to come back to life” - Trent Robinson
Now the re-build of the first phase is complete, the pub’s original timber is a feature of the interior and a previous false ceiling has been removed to give the space a much larger feel.
They have also created a bottle shop stocked with local products and adorned the walls with historical and locally sourced photographs. The floors have been re-built and the tiles hand-chipped by Robinson and his team to match t