The £10m refurbishment of Congleton’s leisure centre got underway on Friday with a sod-cutting ceremony attended by civic dignitaries.
The long-awaited revamp includes the installation of two new swimming pools, a thermal suite and a new gym.
Plans were praised by the mayor of Cheshire East and the boss of the Congleton company in charge of the refurb.
Others, however, asked whether an “opportunity was missed to improve, rather than just refurbish.”
The event began with the mayor of Cheshire East Council, Coun Sarah Pochin, arriving on a rickshaw with the borough’s cycling and walking champion, Coun Suzie Akers Smith.
They said they hoped their use of green transport would encourage residents to get to the new facility by cycling or walking.
The contract for the works, scheduled to take 70 weeks, was awarded to Rock Merchanting, trading as Pulse Design and Build, which is based at Radnor Park, Congleton, and specialises in leisure and fitness projects.
Boss Matt Johnson spoke at the ceremony as the first sod was cut.
“Never has there been a more pressing time to get people back into excellent leisure facilities for health and wellbeing,” he said.
“We are absolutely delighted to start the journey of redeveloping our hometown leisure centre. It is fitting that our excavator, a groundworks contractor also based in Congleton, is marking the start of the job because we know how important community is to Congleton.
“We ourselves have been based in the town for more than 40 years.”
Coun Pochin said: “Leisure centres and the wealth of services that they provide play an important role in helping keep us fit and active, both physically and mentally. I know that this wonderful new facility will be popular and very well used when it opens next year.
“The plans sound amazing and I understand there are going to be two new pools.
Council facilities can now compete with any private gym, they are top notch for a lot less money. We should be very proud of the work we are doing – the council is looking to the future.”
Coun Pochin said that it was the first time the mayor of the borough had arrived at an engagement using “green transport”.
“We used the rickshaw because we want to promote the idea of reaching out to people that may not be able to drive cars,” she said.
“We could get to the stage where we start using rickshaws to help lots of people in Congleton town centre. We need to be opening our minds to different types of transport.
“Today was an ideal opportunity to promote cycling and walking because leisure centres are about being healthy and embracing sport and wellbeing.”
Traditionally, the borough mayor has used a Bentley to travel to events, but this stopped during the pandemic.
Coun Pochin explained: “I wanted very much to go electric and Bentley at the moment don’t have a fully electric car. We are looking at options for the mayor to have a fully electric vehicle in line with the council’s agenda to being carbon neutral by 2025.
“To drive around in a Bentley that is not electric is not flying the flag in the way I want to as mayor.”
Coun Akers Smith said: “There was a little bit of resistance from council officers when we said that we wanted to arrive on a rickshaw, but when we were reviewing the mayoral protocol, I made sure that there was a policy for using non-motorised transport.”
On the leisure centre design scheme, she said: “It is not perfect, but given that the leisure centre is almost 50 years old, and with the funding that we had, it is the best that we can do. It will be good for the people of Congleton.”
Lib Dem Coun Denis Murphy, the mayor of Congleton, had some reservations. He said: “I would have liked it to have been an improvement, not just a refurbishment. It possibly could have been made larger and better, but the money wasn’t there.
“I am pleased to see it being updated because all of these public facilities need to be kept up-to-date, but I think an opportunity was missed to improve, rather than just refurbish.”