Saturday, 21 July 2018

"Whole town will suffer", says investor

A PROPERTY investor who wants to re-open the former LA Fitness gym in Henley says the town’s retailers could suffer if

A PROPERTY investor who wants to re-open the former LA Fitness gym in Henley says the town’s retailers could suffer if it is lost.

Craig Marks, from Peppard, offered to buy the site in Newtown Road last month and let it out as a leisure centre and swimming pool.

But Essex developer Henthames, which owns the land, turned him down and said it was determined to build an 80-bed care home for the elderly there.

It has already submitted a planning application to South Oxfordshire District Council.

Mr Marks, who owns Menta, which specialises in urban regeneration projects in deprived areas, said the gym was a vital sports  facility.

He has three children and his eldest son Christian Hjortland-Marks has rowed for GB at under-16 level.

Mr Marks said: “I was a member of LA Fitness and regularly took my boys swimming on a Sunday. 

“It was great value for money and part of the attraction for people moving to Henley. When I heard it was closing, I thought it was bizarre that such a well-loved facility couldn’t stay open.

“I had my consultants look into it then approached Henthames with a written offer but they were quite intent on opening a care home. LA Fitness was a social hub and somewhere children could learn to swim, which is important in a riverside town with such a strong rowing heritage.

“When businesses are looking for somewhere to set up, one thing they consider is the amenities available to prospective employees.

“The gym complemented the other units on that industrial estate because workers could use it at lunchtime.

“When a unit became vacant, having a gym nearby would have helped attract new tenants. It was pretty unique in that respect and quite clearly viable.

“It also brought a lot of mums and dads into Henley town centre to use the shops and cafés. If you remove a community amenity, you give people one less reason to visit.”

He wouldn’t say how much he offered Henthames but said two gym operators who wished to remain anonymous were interested in renting it.

He said: “This isn’t my usual business but I wanted to step in and do what I could to return the centre to community use. I’m happy to work with Henthames and share some of the profits.

“I’m not against a care home but it should be in the right location. I’m not sure I’d want to spend my final days on an industrial estate.”

On Tuesday, Henley Town Council’s planning committee recommended Henthames’s application is refused.

Members said the proposed main entrance off Mill Lane would increase traffic on the street, posing a hazard to pedestrians and obstructing residents’ access. They also objected to the loss of a leisure facility, saying this was against district council planning policy.

Councillor Sam Evans said: “Mill Lane isn’t designed to take any more traffic. There has been no consultation with any of the residents and if other developments proposed in that area go ahead it will become an accident waiting to happen.”

Mayor Lorraine Hillier said: “It’s an unsuitable location for a care home whereas LA Fitness added to the vitality of that area. It was a good meeting point for families and people working nearby.”

Douglas Bond, of Henthames’s planning consultant Woolf Bond, told the committee that the care home was needed to meet demand and that it would create 70 permanent jobs.

He said a study had shown there were “sufficient” alternative gyms and pools nearby.

Several residents challenged this, saying Henthames had counted “unsuitable” facilities like the 70cm deep training pool at Trinity Primary School.

Henthames bought the 0.47-hectare site for £1.8million earlier this year after LA Fitness was taken over by rival budget chain Pure Gym. The gym and swimming pool closed in August.

The district council will decide the application in January.

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