£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
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