22 September 2023

Boom, bust and revamp: Port Kembla creatives revive a dying Illawarra town

| Siobhan O'Brien
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Live music venue, bar and restaurant The Vault offers some of the best live shows in the Illawarra. Pictured is The Album Show presents The Beatles Hits and Requests. Photo: Supplied.

Sometimes people take a while to hit their straps. Internationally acclaimed singer Ed Sheeran dropped out of school and slept in subway stations now he’s worth a cool US$200 million.

Hawaiian grandmother Mathea Allansmith was 92 when she completed a marathon. She is the oldest woman to have done so.

It’s a phenomenon that happens to towns, too. Consider Port Kembla. This Illawarra locale used to be known as Wollongong’s poor industrial cousin.

It’s a town with a tough history: arsenic flakes tumbling from the sky in the sixties, the economic downturn in the eighties and a few years in the veritable wilderness with businesses boarded up and tumbleweed cartwheeling across the streets.

But Port Kembla is a self-sufficient, resilient and much-loved place. In 2018 the cogs started to turn.

Drag queens Ellawarra and Roxee Horror (left to right) at a recent live performance at The Vault. Photo: Supplied.

Now it’s the home of all things hip. Creatives and entrepreneurs are flocking there in droves and breathing life into it. Live music venues, breweries, galleries, co-operatives and festivals are just part of the day-to-day machinations.

The Vault is a live music/performance space and bar/restaurant that’s located in the literal and configurative epicentre of it: Wentworth Street.

Owner Dave Gorr acquired the building in 2016. He was looking for a challenge. The Vault – as it was already known – provided him with the opportunity to meld his considerable skills in radio, sound and entertainment.

“I wanted to change things up for the venue, for myself,” he explained.

“I embarked on a remodelling of the interiors with a vision to create somewhere that I’d like to go to – a place where I could be entertained, eat good food and hang out with friends.

“The interiors were given an extensive overhaul along with a real focus on the stage and acoustic components, of course.”

One of the musicians at The Vault working his magic on the drums. Photo: Supplied.

Dave and his father Eric built the new custom stage with BlueScope steel with the aid of an expert welder. The lighting, rigging and sound were given a major revamp.

Before Dave appeared on the scene, the venue was owned and operated by a couple who ran it for well over a decade as a successful dance and cabaret club. They also christened it The Vault after the building’s previous incarnation as a bank in the 1960s.

“I wanted to continue the tradition of it being one of the best venues in the Illawarra,” Dave said.

“It has a history of naughty, exhilarating and hilarious entertainment, and I intend to keep bringing that to the audiences who love what we do.”

But it wasn’t always easy to keep the venue afloat. The global pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns made it hard for many businesses to continue – those that offered live music and hospitality in particular.

“I somehow found a way through it and came out the other side. There is something so exhilarating about live performance – the adrenaline and immediacy. People really missed having a place that provided an atmosphere of connection and I think I’ve really achieved that,” Dave said.

The Vault is located at 72-74 Wentworth Street, Port Kembla. Visit the website for more information.

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