The Hunter's peak union body is leading a push to secure the Honeysuckle A Shed as a community asset displaying the city's maritime and industrial heritage.
Hunter Workers, formerly Newcastle Trades Hall Council, hopes to help restore Newcastle Maritime Museum to the historic 1910 wharf with a cafe, community meeting space, offices for the fledgling Committee for the Hunter and a display of industrial heritage items.
Hunter Workers secretary Daniel Wallace said the union body was keen to help the maritime museum after past campaigns to establish Newcastle University and preserve Foreshore Park and Newcastle Show.
Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation called for expressions of interest last month in leasing the A Shed after restoring it and adding a deck on the water. HCCDC, a state government agency, appears to want a family-friendly restaurant in the building to complement the Honeysuckle Hotel in a nearby wharf.
Newcastle Maritime Museum Society raised $2.5 million in government and corporate funding to restore the A Shed in 2008. It rented the building until 2018 before closing down with debts of almost $300,000.
It owes HCCDC $85,000 in unpaid rent, but that has not stopped the museum from talking publicly about the building as a future "core" setting for its collection.
Mr Wallace said the A Shed should have a community use rather than being leased to the highest bidder.
He said HCCDC needed union cooperation to complete many of its varied projects in the Hunter and Central Coast and "there will be a level of push-back if they are not putting something back into the community".
"We'd rather it didn't come to that, but we'll play those cards if we have to," he said.
Museum society president Bob Cook and society member Howard Dick addressed Newcastle councillors in an hour-long public voice session on Tuesday, laying out a bold vision to display the city's maritime heritage at the A Shed and other sites around the harbour.
Mr Dick said the Honeysuckle precinct needed more than "hotels and restaurants and bars from one end to the other".
"There's a big place for all of those things, but good precinct planning does bring in other attractions that, if they're doing their job, are bringing in custom rather than just having more bars and more coffee shops competing with each other and struggling to pay their way," he said.
The society hopes to reach an agreement with City of Newcastle on retaining an advisory role in how the collection is presented before transferring ownership of the artefacts to the council.
Mr Cook will also meet with Port of Newcastle boss Roy Green next week to discuss forming a partnership to help secure the museum's future.
Mr Dick said the city had the potential to create a "world-class" and "authentic" display of its maritime heritage which would appeal to cruise ship passengers and other visitors.
"They're asking the question when they get off the ship, 'Where are we? What is this place that we've never been to before?'" he told the councillors.
"We are the only main city in Australia where it is possible to sip a coffee, drink a beer, eat lunch or surf and watch a working port on a big scale. You can't do it any more in Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne, but you can do it here. And we just take it for granted."
The council organised last year for the museum collection to be stored until September 2020.
In August, chief executive officer Jeremy Bath, frustrated at the museum's lack of progress in finding a permanent home, gave the society a three-week ultimatum to either donate the collection to the council for display in Newcastle Museum or resume full control of the items.
The society had indicated it wanted the council to cover its debts as a condition of donating the items, but Mr Cook said on Tuesday: "We're comfortable to say we're not asking council in any way as part of this intention to transfer the collection for council to be required to pay money on that."
Tuesday's public voice session was designed, in part, to help patch up the society's relationship with the council and secure the council's support for the A Shed proposal.
Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes said she could see no reason why the council would not support the museum's ambitions but urged the society to engage as soon as possible with HCCDC.
Several councillors, including Carol Duncan (Labor), expressed concern that the museum should have a "plan B" in case HCCDC knocked back its proposal.
"Undoubtedly the state will have a figure in its mind about what it would like as a return on that premise," Cr Duncan said.
"I strongly suggest a really, really good plan needs to be worked on concurrently, otherwise this will leave you and this collection at significant risk."
The ongoing tension between the society and Mr Bath was evident on Tuesday when the chief executive challenged Mr Cook about a radio interview in August in which he said the society had no debts and "Jeremy created" the $300,000 figure.
Mr Cook conceded that the society had debts of $297,000, but he said HCCDC had not asked for its outstanding rent and he had verbal assurances that the other debts had been forgiven.