Old school educators revving up to save building’s integrity

A PUSH to preserve the integrity of the historic old Mechanics Institute building in Tamworth is under way with community groups saying they want to move in rather than have council rent it out to commercial interests.

HISTORY PUSH: Community members Jan Morris, John Sharkey and John Vickery head a lobby to save the Mechanics Institute for a learning centre for local groups. Photo: Geoff O'Neill 060614GOG03

HISTORY PUSH: Community members Jan Morris, John Sharkey and John Vickery head a lobby to save the Mechanics Institute for a learning centre for local groups. Photo: Geoff O'Neill 060614GOG03

The seniors’ education group, Tamworth U3A, is leading the lobby to protect the Brisbane St building from an uncertain future and keep its heritage flag flying.

The “For Lease” signs have gone up on the old learning centre, but a number of community groups have joined forces to fight those moves.

John Sharkey, Jan Morris and John Vickery are just three of the freedom fighters – representing some small community groups

who wouldn’t mind sharing the space, keeping it in community hands and protecting it from being converted into something with company and advertising logos plastered across its exterior.

“I mean, we really don’t want to see it painted up in red and yellow stripes or something ugly. It’s a heritage building and we’d like to see it stay as a centre of learning  and be used by community groups,” Mr Sharkey said.

The volunteer leaders all claim they recognise that some sort of financial contribution has to be made by the groups to underwrite the maintenance costs.

“We don’t expect to get it for nothing but perhaps if we can band together we can come up with some sort of case. There are community groups that have access to government funding as well, so that’s another avenue for us to look at,” Mr Sharkey said.

He is hoping to unite the groups into some form of “coalition of the willing’” and get a meeting with Tamworth Regional Council, which owns the building, to persuade TRC to see their point.

“This building is unique,” Mr Sharkey, a secretary of the University of the Third Age(U3A) group, said.

“We don’t have too many buildings like that in our town and its original purpose was as an education centre for working people, so seeing it be put into community hands for groups like the U3A and others to use as a meeting place on a continuing basis would be appropriate.

“We don’t want to see it used as a nightclub for a pub or something like that.”

John Vickery, an executive member of the local historical society, and Jan Morris, from the U3A and other groups, are just as vocal in their support of the bid to keep the Mechanics Institute as a community centre.

“The Mechanics Institute is one of the most significant historical buildings in Tamworth,” Mr Vickery said.

The building is nearly 150 years old, and the money for it was raised by membership fees.

It became a meeting place for groups like the chess and draughts, literary  and debating clubs. It was for years a university adult education or continuing education centre, and for the past 21 years has been home to the country music foundation.

Mrs Morris said while community groups accepted they couldn’t expect to have the building for free, and needed to contribute to the cost of upkeep, there were obviously avenues to be investigated that could finance that maintenance.

“Heritage grants spring to mind,” she said.

“The mechanics institute building is one of the oldest buildings still in existence in a town that has sadly lacked the will to preserve old buildings,” she said.

“Its position enhances its elegant design and was restored beautifully some years ago. It would be a travesty to see it let for commercial purposes and covered with company signs and paraphernalia.”

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