Hundreds of worried residents, gym users and school children staged a protest outside a leisure center threatened with imminent closure.
Protesters gathered outside the Meopham Leisure Center near Gravesend to voice their opposition to plans to close the community facility.
It comes as the sports center‘s lease comes to an end on Friday July 29 and managers are warning that it may not be possible to extend it.
The Swale Academies Trust (SAT), which runs the facility based at Meopham Secondary School, says it is engaged in ‘prolonged discussions’ but its priority is children’s education and not funding education third-party organizations.
The announcement, which was made on Friday, was met with anger and disapproval by villagers and members who gathered in large numbers outside the Wrotham Road center to protest last night.
Gymnasium member Anna Roberts said: “We want to highlight all the activities that the center organizes for children in the area.
“We want to highlight the work he does with the Helen Allison School and the fact that he is for families, single parents, children, teens and everyone in between.
“It is located in the Meopham hub, many users walk to the center, to close it would deprive the local community of a vital asset.”
The 48-year-old says Covid and the decline in social interaction during this time has highlighted the need for such facilities.
She added: “It feels like walking into a family center and taking it away would be detrimental.”
Another user, Paula Kerr, added: “It’s just a community center. I don’t think there’s anyone who lives in the area who hasn’t walked through that door at some point.
“A lot of friends have made it. It’s a great community sports center and it would be a shame if it closed.”
Plans to close the center have also been lambasted by mental health campaigners. Peter Scutts – who started the Elliott Holmes Memorial Fund with his partner to fund therapy for vulnerable young people – highlighted the need for sports facilities in terms of mental health support.
He said: “I think they should consider the impact on the mental health and well-being of Meopham residents. I don’t know if that has been considered.
“It’s not just exercise, it’s socializing with other people. Centers like this one in particular provide an outlet for young people to mingle and socialize.”
The Istead Rise resident explained how the club’s closure will not only impact the mental wellbeing of youngsters, but also the wider community.
Meopham Parish Council also expressed ‘extreme concern’ over the potential closure.
Clerk Shaun Fishenden said: “The parish council is extremely saddened to hear of the threatened future of the Meopham Leisure Centre. We continue to work with the trustees of the Meopham Sports and Leisure Association (MSLA) to offer our support in trying to secure its long-term future.
“We call on the Swale Academies Trust to reconsider its actions which put the center at risk and instead recognize the benefits of having a fully equipped and well maintained leisure center on its school grounds which is accessible to its pupils. “
He has submitted a formal application to Gravesham Council for the center to be recognized as an asset of community value.
This listing would trigger a six-month moratorium if the Trust notified its intention to sell the building on the open market or to issue a new emphyteutic lease.
It is hoped this will give local groups the opportunity to develop their own bid to purchase the building.
A message on the centre’s website told customers: “We are writing at the earliest opportunity to sadly inform you that there is a strong possibility that the Meopham Leisure Center will close.
“We understand this is a shock, and the news is truly very sad. Rest assured, MSLA is working hard to find a solution that will hopefully ensure your important and beloved community facility remains open past July 29.
“We would like to thank all the staff for their perseverance during this difficult period and would like to assure everyone that we are mobilizing to continue to offer you the best service.”
The lease with SAT will end at the end of the month and an extension has not yet been secured with ongoing negotiations.
It is understood that the government advises the Trust to charge the full commercial rate rather than the current pepper rate.
A spokesperson for the trust said: “Swale Academies Trust recognizes the value placed by the residents of Meopham on the village sports centre. SAT have been in extensive discussions with MSLA over the renewal of their tenancy agreement.
“However, while we look forward to seeing this renewal happen, we are unable to meet MSLA’s grant requests to help them ensure a financially viable business model.
“Funding is provided by the DfE to the SAT for the purpose of educating children, not supporting third party organisations.
“In order that the Village Sports Center can remain open, we would be happy to help MSLA reach out to other sources of funding that could help ensure the sustainability of their funding model.”
A petition has been launched since to end the proposed shutdown and, at the time of writing, had over 1,000 signatures.
The MSLA was established in 1985 and is responsible for the management and development of the centre’s facilities and leisure activities, which include a gymnasium, gym and courts, weight training classes and a crèche.