£12m leisure fa­cil­ity was long time com­ing

When the newly re­fur­bished Stour Cen­tre opened 10 years ago, it was billed as the first in a long line of projects to trans­form the town. But as reporter Ai­dan Bar­low re­veals, the de­liv­ery of a new leisure cen­tre was a huge chal­lenge for coun­cil chiefs wh

Kentish Express Ashford & District - - Stour Centre -

When it first opened in 1974, Ash­ford’s £4 mil­lion Stour Cen­tre was con­sid­ered a state-ofthe-art fa­cil­ity to be proud of – boast­ing two swim­ming pools, sports halls, a cafe, creche and a host of other fa­cil­i­ties.

But as the years went by, time took its toll on the build­ing, and by the 1990s res­i­dents com­plained it needed a ma­jor facelift or the con­struc­tion of a new leisure cen­tre al­to­gether.

Those of us who grew up in Ash­ford will re­mem­ber swim­ming lessons in the old learner pool and 25-me­tre pool. It was a win­dow­less build­ing bathed in or­ange flood­lights, and ev­ery­thing about it seemed beige.

The over­all com­plex seemed like a labyrinth set across three lev­els, and by com­par­i­son to other leisure cen­tres it seemed lack­ing in fun and cheer.

It com­pared poorly to mod­ern fa­cil­i­ties such as the leisure cen­tre at Mote Park in Maid­stone, which could pro­vide flumes, leisure pools, div­ing boards, and in­door ac­tiv­i­ties all un­der one roof. There was the added bonus that it had win­dows to let in some nat­u­ral light.

Reg­u­lar news re­ports and let­ters in the Ken­tish Ex­press re­vealed how the cen­tre was “crum­bling” and a se­cret re­port in 1998 re­vealed ma­jor prob­lems with a build­ing that had a “con­stant need for patchup re­pairs” that were a drain on coun­cil funds.

At first Ash­ford Bor­ough Coun­cil hoped to build a Mil­len­nium Leisure Cen­tre, and ap­pealed to the Blair gov­ern­ment for fund­ing un­der the Pri­vate Fi­nance Ini­tia­tive (PFI).

But the gov­ern­ment re­fused to sup­port the coun­cil’s bid to bor­row money, and the first plans were ditched in Septem­ber 2001.

Then in Novem­ber 2002, the KE re­vealed the “Glo­ri­ous dream to be re­alised” as the coun­cil set out its vi­sion for a £11.5 mil­lion re­vamp.

The £7 mil­lion first phase would de­liver flume rides, a leisure pool, learner pool and other fa­cil­i­ties. A de­scrip­tion stated: “With a curved glass side it will make max­i­mum use of nat­u­ral light and at night will re­sem­ble a glow­ing box be­side the river­side walk.”

The £4.5 mil­lion sec­ond phase would in­clude mov­ing the in­door bowls club to Vic­to­ria Park, then de­liv­er­ing two new multi-use sports halls, a creche, re­cep­tion and cafe.

The coun­cil’s then di­rec­tor of com­mu­nity ser­vices Ian Kirk­land said he was pleased, but ad­mit­ted: “The his­tory is that it has been a long, hard slog.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2003 Ash­ford Bor­ough Coun­cil’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee backed the first phase of the plans, and the es­ti­mated com­ple­tion date for the project was Fe­bru­ary 2006.

How­ever there were fur­ther de­lays, and by De­cem­ber 2004 there were doubts that the coun­cil could de­liver on the scheme. There were also fears from par­ents that their chil­dren’s swim­ming lessons would be af­fected.

But the coun­cil re­vealed the plans at the end of Novem­ber, and a re­port in the KE read: “We can de­liver £12 mil­lion dream.”

Queue­ing up at the of­fi­cial open­ing of the re­vamped Stour Cen­tre in 2007; Mayor Rita Hawes un­veil­ing the plaque

Th­ese pic­tures from the Seven­ties are re­minders of how the Stour Cen­tre, Ash­ford, used to look be­fore re­mod­elling work was com­pleted in 2007

The de­sign phase saw the ini­tial plans change and evolve over time

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