MORE than one in six country pubs is up for sale across South Australia.
Publicans are battling rising utility costs, dwindling rural populations and harsher drink-driving laws.
And publicans fear new liquor-licensing fees, which come into effect next month, will be the final nail in the coffin for many country watering holes.
An investigation by The Advertiser can reveal more than 50 of the state's 300 country pubs are listed as being for sale.
A further eight have closed in the past three years.
Social analysts warn the demise of country pubs is threatening the fabric of small rural communities.
The new state government annual licensing fee will cost hotel owners between $700 and $5000.
Australian Hotels Association (SA) general manager Ian Horne said the difference between metropolitan and country operations had never been more stark.
"Country regions have declining populations, their industries are moving out but their cost structures are the same," he said.
"Many small historical pubs will become nothing more than museums of the past.
"For many country towns, pubs are the community meeting place and the gathering point in good times and bad."
In the past three years, pubs at Tarcowie, Yongala, Terowie, Hoyleton, Georgetown, Belalie, Petina and Appila have all closed. Liberal MP Dan van Holst Pellekaan, who has raised the issue in State Parliament, believes many other pubs are also likely to shut.
"They (publicans) are battling away and doing the very best they can, but are saying that it is actually the government fees and charges that are causing them to have to shut their doors," Mr van Holst Pellekaan said.
Bob Tonks was the publican at the Tarcowie Hotel until 2009 when he was forced to close his doors on Australia Day, because he simply ran out of customers.
"The town isn't getting any new blood," Mr Tonks said.
"All the kids move down to Adelaide for school and don't come back. We had a lot of fun here but in the end it was costing us money."
Hotel broker Mary Birnie said the new fee would be a huge burden for many rural venues. "The smaller hotels with the incomes dropping and all the other costs going up - the licence fee is just another cross to bear," she said.
"Licence fees and costs like electricity are making it very difficult. The problem also is that the value of some of the smaller ones is dropping.
"Another big factor has been the .05 factor because people can't drive to the pub and drive home. Someone has to pick them up so people use more takeaway and drink at home rather than getting your big front-bar trade."
Maroona Hotel owner Michael Phillips said the new fee was the catalyst for putting his hotel on the market this year.
"We're certainly feeling the pinch - now bringing in a yearly fee is scary," he said.
"It's going to break a lot of pubs that are struggling. I'm paying the same as a pub in town that can hold hundreds of people. There should be fees based on how many a pub can accommodate."
Social analyst David Chalke said once a town lost its pub, it had lost its meeting place.
"It is going to be particularly noticeable in SA because you've got the general move away from the bush to the city," Mr Chalke said.
"You've got a state that's not really growing a great deal in comparison to Queensland or Western Australia or even Victoria."
Caltowie Hotel owners Phillip and Anne Maree Dickens said the new licensing fees were another dilemma. Many pubs had already shut because they didn't have poker machines on the premises.
"In my case, to afford $700 for the licence fee, I would have to sell 700 beers," Ms Dickens said.
"Our electricity bills have doubled in five years and our water rates have probably tripled in that amount of time. The only reason we survive is because we're a family-run business."
Pub owners Lee and Cheryll Rocher have had the lease for the Coonalpyn Hotel on the market for about six months.
Hotel manager Mary Verhees said the town was "just dwindling away".
"We've lost a shop, a garage and a roadhouse in recent times," she said. "The pub has to compete with other clubs and of course they have to fight for their own money."
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