Anger at plan to turn bowling club into gym

Club treasurer Helen Gray, left, and secretary Isabel Anderson fear losing their Portobello home. Picture: Greg Macvean
Club treasurer Helen Gray, left, and secretary Isabel Anderson fear losing their Portobello home. Picture: Greg Macvean
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A SHOCK decision to axe the city’s only public indoor bowling club as part of a cash-saving drive has been labelled “catastrophic”.

Edinburgh Leisure has announced plans to transform Portobello Indoor Bowls and Leisure Centre on Westbank Street into a gymnastics hub and soft play centre. It is also pulling the plug on Port Edgar Water Sports Centre from the end of this summer season.

Stunned bowling club members were reduced to tears after discovering that the centre was to close. Widespread condemnation of the way the move was handled has prompted Edinburgh East MSP Kenny MacAskill to demand showdown talks with the bosses of Edinburgh Leisure, who have so far been tight-lipped on how much they hope to save by swinging the axe.

Last night, Richard Lewis, of Edinburgh Leisure, revealed there could be further savings and closures as the viability of sports facilities is sifted on a “case-by-case basis”. Revealing the rationale behind the Porty closure, he said: “This facility has a very low rate of use and transforming it into a gymnastics facility will increase usage.

“Like all organisations in this time of austerity, Edinburgh Leisure is looking at facilities where use is falling and there has been a national decline in bowls.”

Asked if there could be reviews of other leisure facilities across the Capital he added: “It’s really a case-by-case basis – this is not a one-size-fits-all policy. It’s about making sensible decisions with the taxpayers’ money.”

Edinburgh Leisure will enter into a period of consultation with a view to reopening as a gymnastics and soft play centre in autumn.

The decision, however, has angered hundreds of people who make use of the bowling facility. Portobello Indoor Bowling Club (PIBC) team manager Robert Wood said the move would be “catastrophic” for the sport.

“This is short-sighted action by Edinburgh Leisure,” he said. “There’s growing numbers of younger people taking up bowling and I don’t think Edinburgh Leisure knows just what the club is doing to attract and grow the sport. They say there’s a consultation period, but the centre has been closed. We all know it.”

In March, ten-year-old Lewis Betts and Liam McKay, of the club’s junior section, enjoyed national title success, winning in the pairs at the Scottish under-17 championships.

Mr Wood said: “Indoor bowls is a great way to get light exercise and a lot of older people aren’t able to use gym facilities. If we have nowhere to play, we’re going to have to withdraw from the league and it will be catastrophic for indoor bowls in the area, but we are not going to walk away from this without a fight.”

The Portobello club is the only facility in Edinburgh where non-members are able to book rink time from as little as £2.30 for pay and play.

The only other indoor bowling facility is Bainfield in Gorgie, where an indoor membership is £60 plus a £10 joining fee.

PIBC secretary Isabel Anderson said it was unlikely people would make the trek across the Capital. She said the fact the club paid Edinburgh Leisure £44,000 in fees last season makes the closure especially hard to understand.

She said: “Edinburgh Leisure should give us an explanation as to exactly what’s happening. We weren’t even told there was a consultation – we were told we would have to leave the premises.”

Mr MacAskill said he is seeking a sitdown with Edinburgh Leisure because the announcement was made following “little discussion with anyone”.

The Porty club is also used by blind and disabled bowlers and by the Edinburgh branch of Parkinson’s UK.

Edinburgh Leisure chief executive John Comiskey said: “Edinburgh Leisure has identified a significant demand for gymnastics provision and we are looking forward to offering this new facility for families in the Portobello area and beyond.

“We recognise that a change of use from an indoor bowling facility would be a disappointment to its regular bowlers, and we plan to work with these customers to support them in finding suitable alternative provision.”

He added that due to financial pressures and environmental factors “outwith its control”, the body would be withdrawing from the management of Port Edgar Water Sports Centre from the end of this summer season.

It is estimated that £2.5 million would have to be spent on maintenance to keep the facility open for more than three years.

The marina had been in line for a £14m refurbishment but the plans were dropped because the economic downturn had made it impossible to find a developer.

Mr Comiskey added: ”Following a detailed review of all services, Port Edgar is one that we reluctantly cannot continue to support. We will work closely with all those potentially affected by this decision.”

Portobello councillor Mike Bridgeman said: “I’m going to look at the case that’s been put forward and listen to the views of members of the bowling club.”

In November, we revealed how outdoor bowling fans in the Capital were warned their game may soon die out after sports bosses revealed they were considering axing greens that are not being used enough.

‘It’s sad they will need to find somewhere else’

THE decision to close the bowling facility comes as Edinburgh Leisure continues to plough money into other facilities.

In March, city bosses announced plans to write off a £230,000 debt owed by Edinburgh International Climbing Arena weeks after agreeing to replace its roof at a cost of almost

£1 million.

While the Ratho climbing wall welcomed 260,000 visitors this financial year, critics have been quick to call for trendier, younger sports NOT to be favoured over bowls.

Five times world indoor singles bowling champion Alex Marshall, from Tranent, said: “Bowling is massive in Edinburgh – we’ve produced world champions and Commonwealth Games gold medallists. I have been to see the kids at Portobello play and they have a very good junior section. Like me, some have them have started very young.

“It’s sad that they will need to find somewhere else to play.”

LIFELINE FOR MANY

PORTOBELLO Indoor Bowls and Leisure Centre provides more than just entertainment for some of its users – for many it’s a lifeline.

Secretary Isabel Anderson, who described news of the impending closure as “devastating”, said: “People looking after partners who have mild dementia, or who are not fit enough to bowl, can bring them to the stadium. There is always someone to sit and chat to them while they get a well-earned break.

“Widows and widowers state that they do not know what they would do if they didn’t have their bowling to go to. The expression used mostly is that bowling is their saviour.”

Each week, the centre is used by many blind and disabled bowlers and by members of the Edinburgh branch of Parkinson’s UK.

Isabel, 74, from Newington, said: “Portobello is the only club where they are able to play without being members of a club.”

She added: “We do not have as many members as we used to have, but nowadays it seems there’s a lot of older people taking up the sport but also a lot of younger people – it’s a little community.

“Now there’s not going to be a facility in Edinburgh where people can just go along and try a game.

“Pensioners these days are meant to be getting fitter, so why take something away like this?

“Bowls is one of our most successful sports.

“Scotland won three of the eight gold medals on offer at the World Bowls in Australia in December.

“How many of our national teams have such success?”