End of an era as last student pub in Dunedin closes doors

Student bars in Dunedin have been a second home to scarfies for more than a century, but the last one standing has closed its doors for good.

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Starters Bar, formerly known as The Oriental, has housed many big nights. Source: 1 NEWS

Tributes are now flowing in for the well-loved bar, with members of the community calling it "an institution of Dunedin" and an "icon" of the city.

The Otago University Students Association purchased Starters Bar in 2018.

Association President Michaela Waite-Harvey says it was part of the kaupapa to reduce alcohol-related harm amongst students.

“It was just another tangible thing to add to provide students a safe haven to enjoy their time at university because we want to provide fun, but also safe fun for students,” she says.

But recently, significant health and safety concerns have been raised about the building.

“It was a risk that we had made off all of the reports to the building that we had," Waite-Harvey says.

“It's not an ongoing harm to students, but it was a risk sufficient enough for us not to be comfortable for it to be reopening."

But some say its closure is now compromising student safety.

“There aren't really that many places for students to go and if they can't even go to one that was owned by the university where are they supposed to go after this?” says student Jaxson Tautala-Hanica.

Police say the bar was aimed at first year university students.

“They haven’t got a flat to go drink at, so it's somewhere they can go, they can get really good food, good entertainment, it’s a good size venue, there’s a lot of university halls around that area and that gives them a place to go to and call home,” says Sergeant Ian Paulin, Dunedin's alcohol prevention officer.

Over the years, the city has been scattered with student bars; from The Gardies, the Captain Cook Hotel and The Bowler to name a few.

But they’re now all closed.

“Police over the years have been blamed for closing student bars and the university has been blamed for closing student bars but none of that's true, it's actually the price," Paulin says.

“Students are very fiscally aware of their buying power when it comes to alcohol and they can buy twice three times the amount at an off licence that an on licence so that's why those places are closed.”

Starters Bar Dunedin. Source: 1 NEWS

He says the only reason Starters continued to operate was because the OUSA ran it not for profit, solely to keep students safe, and the pricing structure has to change if student bars are to survive.

“It has to be a change in the mentality of an operator that they’re not going to run for profit, they're actually going to run to keep students safe, we're all about keeping students safe.”

It’s also a tough blow for the city’s live music scene.

Save Live Music Dunedin’s David Bennett says it’s a sad time for the whole community.

“This is one of the last remaining student bars and a very iconic music venue in this town and it's really sad that something as simple as issues with the building could bring the whole thing down.”

He says it’s the only venue in Dunedin that’s got the capacity and modern technology to support international and local artists.

“It was one of the only options left for a lot of tours coming through town and now without this, and a lack of venues in general, Dunedin will miss out on a lot of tours.”

The Students Association is committed to finding a new venue, and both the university and Dunedin City council say they’re open to discussion about a potential replacement venue.

In a statement, the university’s acting vice-chancellor professor Helen Nicholson said: “The University of Otago supported OUSA in establishing the Starter’s Bar as a safe venue for student social activity and was disappointed to learn it will close.

“One of the components of The Sophia Charter - designed to enhance the safety and well-being of the student community in North Dunedin - is to work with OUSA on opportunities to use the Starters Bar in North Dunedin and other venues to support student social activity, together with working with the Government and Dunedin City Council on changes that will reduce alcohol-related harm. We would certainly be interested in working with any parties interested in assisting us to achieve the goals of the Sophia Charter.*"

Mayor Aaron Hawkins has also shown his support.

“We are absolutely open to those sorts of discussions and would welcome any parties that wanted to join that.

“We certainly don't want to be in a position where people don't come and play here because they haven’t been able to find a venue,” Hawkins says.

The council says it’s in talks with Save Dunedin Live Music as part of the development of a Live Music Action Plan, which aims to strengthen the Dunedin music landscape.

In a statement, the council said: “This work involves regular contact with representatives from the collective, and staff are also planning hui with the wider music community.

“The outcome of this work is to be considered by council in December 2021.

“We have been impressed by the collective’s work to connect the local live music sector in Dunedin, and we look forward to presenting the results of this collaborative effort to the council in December.”

The Students Association says it will look at pop up venues, or a temporary building until a permanent replacement is found.

*The Sophia Charter was established in the memory of former student Sophia Crestani. The Charter is a shared commitment from Dunedin stakeholders including the University, Police, Fire and Emergency NZ, Otago Property Investors Association, the Dunedin City Council and Otago University Students’ Association.