New battle for old York
Faversham House owner and York Foundation Committee chair, Nola Bliss, left and York Shire councillor Denese Smythe. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

Historic York is battling to revive its tourist industry in the face of declining visitors and business closures, including three of its four high-street hotels.

One business owner has cut prices 40 per cent to keep his cafe full and tables at York's only remaining hotel restaurant, which once had to be booked months in advance, now sit empty.

Locals chalk the town's tourist woes up to everything from a lack of marketing and investment to inexperienced operators, internal strife at the Shire of York and State and Federal belt-tightening.

The loss of the York Jazz Festival, Flying Fifties car race and the York Food and Wine Festival are seen as both a symptom and cause of the decline and the town's tourist services never quite recovered from a $12,000-plus theft from its visitor centre.

Some are optimistic and point to the newly-formed York Foundation Committee charged with devising a tourism strategy, and the election of business-savvy shire president Matthew Reid.

Others say the extent of the decline is overblown and good businesses still make money.

Closed: Historic Settlers House. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

But in a town that depends on tourism, most agree things have to change.

As one hospitality boss put it: "If we sit the way we are, York will just go by the wind."

The West Australian found York to be a town at a crossroads.

A walk down the beautifully preserved and heritage-protected main street reveals the Imperial Hotel, the York Heritage Hotel and Settlers House have all shut.

Open for business with farmstay accommodation at Lavendale Farm, south of York, owners Merv Taylor and Katherine Jane, with resident donkeys, Puff and Eric. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

The Imperial is up for lease, the York for sale and a blackboard outside Settlers says its restaurant is closed until further notice.

Nearby The York Mill Cafe & Gallery is closed and a for-sale sign suggests it will not be reopened any time soon.

Signs advertise the shire's new app promoting York's heritage and its cafes and bakeries seem to be doing decent business for a weekday.

Accommodation is plentiful - the closed hotels still rent rooms - but when the sun goes down the options for well-heeled visitors to linger over a nice meal are few and far between.

Imperial owner John Saville-Wright says tourism "collapsed" because of a lack of investment in WA's oldest inland town.

Six years ago Sunday lunch drew 300 people. Before he shut his doors in April it was a good day to have 15 through the door.

"We were forced to close both the restaurant and bars because of the drastic reduction in visitor numbers," he says. "The town has become a ghost town."

Closed: The York Hotel. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

On York's main drag, Castle Hotel manager Nicky Worthing is not exactly rushed off her feet at lunchtime.

Until about four years ago, Saturday night dinner at the Castle had a four-month waiting list. Now people just turn up.

"I love the pub and I really like York," she says. "I see so much potential but we're hitting a brick wall and I don't know what it is."

Ever tougher liquor licensing conditions, the cost of maintaining old buildings and a lack of development on the high street have hurt business.

Not every business is feeling the pinch.

Nola and Richard Bliss have run colonial mansion Faversham House as luxury accommodation for 10 years and say business is growing year-on-year.

Ms Bliss, who chairs the York Foundation Committee, says York's issues are the same as in any other country town.

"For every business that's closed there's a different reason," she says. "There's no canker: people get divorced, have personal situations. Sometimes it's just the bank calling them in, sometimes they're really not very well qualified to run the business."

York's trouble, she believes, is that it has failed to sell itself.

Shire councillor and former tourism bureau boss Denese Smythe agrees. "York really needs to market itself and the last couple of years we haven't really done a very good job of marketing ourself," she says.

Closed: The Imperial Hotel. Picture: Nic Ellis/The West Australian

Ten minutes from the town on Lavendale Farm, Katherine Jane and Merv Taylor believe they know something about marketing. They credit it for their success and something they believe the town could do better.

The couple say there is no reason a well-run business should not succeed in York. They are prepared to put their money where their mouths are but have been knocked back on offers for two York businesses.

"There's huge potential in York," Ms Jane says.

"A lot of people say the numbers aren't there and I can only assume the numbers aren't there.

"But it's not helped by the fact businesses are closing down because then the reputation spreads: Why bother going to York if you can't get a decent meal?"

At a spare table at his casual-dining high-street restaurant Cafe Bugatti, owner Maurice Buck is one of the town's optimists, confident the worst is behind it.

"My business is 90 per cent tourism," he says. "Without the tourists we would not be here.

"The businesses that have closed have got their own individual circumstances and I don't know what they are but it's not because of tourism."

At weekends, Mr Buck cannot keep up with demand but full tables have come at a price: two months ago he made a tough call.

"I've cut my prices 40 per cent just to keep the numbers up in this place," he says. "The tourists don't want to come here and spend a load of money."

Optimism aside, he is also a realist. "We still need to get tourism back into York and the way to do that is to be competitive in what we do, be constructive in what we're doing," he says.

"The business owners I know in this town all work hard and run their businesses very hard and they've all got one goal: to improve tourism in the town.

"I've seen the highs and I've seen the lows and I can tell you now, if we have another two years of lows it won't be good for York."

For every business that's closed there's a different reason. " York Foundation Committee chairwoman Nola Bliss

The West Australian

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