The Renmark Hotel, the oldest co-operatively owned hotel in the British Commonwealth, stands beside the Murray River in South Australia’s Riverland region. It first opened its doors in 1897 and has continued to serve the district’s renowned local produce from the same site ever since.

Although the hotel’s collective ownership has remained unchanged since the 19th century, the structure itself “has been tacked onto over the years” says its general manager, Michael Schuetze. The original single-storey pub became a two-storied colonial building, and an art deco third storey was added during the 1930s. From the outside the building doesn’’t appear to have changed much since then, but inside it’s a fully modern hotel with accommodation and function rooms, several bars and an award-winning bistro restaurant.

Sitting within Australia’s largest wine-producing district, the Renmark has a predictably impressive wine list, and according to Michael it was built in order to give locals a chance to eat and drink in comfortable surroundings. “Renmark was originally a prohibition town. Then illegal grog shops sprang up, and the community decided that for the first proper hotel, they didn’’t want private ownership.”

Instead, the community owned and ran the hotel through an elected board whose members are required to be local residents. Whenever the growing town needed further facilities such as a hospital, the hotel was ready to provide much of the funding. Over time, says Michael, “the community has just come to take co-operative ownership for granted.

“There wouldn’’t be anyone in town we don’’t sponsor, sports-wise, and we do lots of in-kind sponsorships. Service clubs like Rotary and Lions all meet here for free.”

These days the people of Renmark don’’t need to travel several hours to Adelaide to eat at an award-winning restaurant. Their local community-owned bistro serves wallaby, kangaroo, crocodile and saltbush lamb cooked at the table on a sizzling slab of volcanic rock. The hotel kitchens have recently had a five million dollar upgrade and the board is looking to expand the accommodation rooms.

The Renmark might be the oldest pub of its kind but its co-operative ownership is not uncommon. In each of the four main towns in the Murray River region, the only hotel is community-owned. “This one was very successful,” says Michael, “so it was seen to be a good model.”
Australia IYC 2012 story from “Building a better Australia – 50+ stories of co-operation”, Focus Publications