Back from the brink

By Richard Wright

Friday, February 28, 2014



THE story of the West Wight Sports Centre goes back more than half a century, when a group of parents had the germ of an idea that was to grow and flourish.

Two days ago, the project could have been in grave danger of dying after so many people had given so much of their time, energy and cash over so long to turn it into a vibrant hub.

But, at the 11th hour, the IW Council deferred a proposed £25,000 cut in its grant to the sports centre for one year, giving it valuable breathing space.

The threat of losing the money, as part of £28 million savings the council has to find over the next three years, had set loud alarm bells.

The original Tory plan to slash funding, which might have gone ahead under the Independents, left everyone at the centre seriously pessimistic about the future.

It would have brought the annual grant down to £52,000, as part of the trade-off by the old administration, which had given the trust £100,000.

If the cut had been approved, with the grant tapering away to nothing in future years and income remaining at current levels, a projected £40,000 deficit would shoot up to £111,000 in 2018 — clearly unsustainable.

The £25,000 was vital to the Freshwater facility that became a reality in the Seventies after people fundraised and rolled up their sleeves, pulled on their wellies and got down to work.

In 1978, the governor of the Island, Earl Mountbatten, opened the pool, which had cost tens of thousands of pounds.

Its transformation over the next decades was powered by fundraising and the support of successive councils.

Who knows, for instance, if West Wight’s favourite son, Darren Mew, would have achieved his Commonwealth Games medal success in 1998, without his local pool?

In May 2000, with £1.8 million from the National Lottery, the new sports centre and refurbished pools welcomed the public.

There was also a meeting room and creche, multi-purpose area, fitness room, hairdressing salon, cafe and licensed bar.

Activities included just about everything from badminton to yoga, such as boot-camp, bums, legs and tums, children’s parties, line dance, indoor skateboarding, tai-chi and trampolining.

The millennium saw the charity become a major West Wight employer and last year, it won an Amateur Swimming Association Community Award as well as a Community Action Award.

More than 50 staff now work at the centre, which still relies heavily on its old voluntary ethos.

Recently, the centre started to dig up its back story, with Paul Blackley collating press cuttings and pictures collected by Shirley Miles, one of the original stalwarts.

Even though she turns 80 this year, Shirley still regularly teaches swimming at the centre.

She was a supporter of the pool fundraising organisation SPLASH that also included the now retired councillor and businessman, Ron Smith.

Clare Griffin has managed the centre for 25 years, helping build it up to its current 150,000 visitors a year.

When recent news broke all hands would be needed to the financial pump, she decided to raise funds by taking part in the summer’s Needles half-marathon, the cross-Solent swim and September’s triathlon too.

She said: "This year, I will have been here for a quarter of a century. Things looked pretty bleak three or four months ago so I decided to do something about it.

"We don’t just want to survive. We want to be on an even keel so we can continue to provide so much for the West Wight, which would otherwise be truly isolated.

"It’s been so difficult for so long and we have always survived. I don’t think people believe we could close but without an awful lot of hard work, my message is it could still happen."

Clare added: "The extra year gives us breathing space and we are working up some ideas.

"One idea is for Freshwater Parish Council to have its offices here, which would generate important revenue for us and give the council the offices it needs as part of the community."

In the run-up to the IW Council’s decision not to cut its grant to the centre, local Independent member, John Medland, made a plea to fellow councillors for more time, describing the consequences of closure as "unimaginable".

If the Independents followed the Tory thinking, the grant would shrink from £100,000 to nothing in just four years, he said.

"Closure would remove 50 jobs and take over £300,000 out of the economy in local wages.

"It would leave a huge empty building that would be a major headache for the local authority, not to mention the loss of health, sport, social and community services in one of the most isolated and vulnerable communities on the Island."

Cllr Medland added: "We, in the West Wight, have been fundraising for this centre for over 40 years. I remember shaking a tin in Newport in the Seventies, when I was a teenager.

"The building took 25 years to complete and we are proud of the achievement. Can you imagine how we would feel if it became a giant mausoleum to all our failed hopes? "


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