Ely councillor and former mayor takes the helm at troubled outdoor centre which ACRE is trying to save

ELY councillor and former mayor John Yates has become chairman of Mepal Outdoor Centre and will combine it with chairmanship of Cambridgeshire ACRE which is trying to save the enterprise.

Kirsten Bennett, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Acre, said Cllr Yates will stay on until at least the New Year “when we shall know where we are and what we are doing.”

Ms Bennett said her organisation was working with Mepal Outdoor Centre to “look at the broad direction it should take, sort out its viability and work with them through that.

“We can’t do that forever but we are a charity that supports other charities across the county – we can contribute our good will, time and expertise and, like village halls for instance, provide governance structure.”

Cllr Yates has replaced Brian Chadwick from March as chairman who stood down following the publicly announced crisis at Mepal. Mr Chadwick, who has been involved with the centre nearly 30 years, stays on as a trustee.

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One of the tasks facing Cambridgeshire Acre will be to discover the touch paper that lit the financial crisis.

Honorary treasurer John Woolly signed off the 2011/2011 accounts on June 14 although Mr Chadwick said a month earlier trustees had been informed, by a new trustee, of “the poor financial position we were in, and that we needed to consider redundancies. This we did at some cost.”

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First to go was the �30,000 a year centre manager David Savage who joined Mepal in 1996 from a background of working for the YMCA, The Scripture Union but who had left school to become a chemist. He retired at the end of June.

“After Mr Savage left we found out that our financial position was much worse than we were told,” said Mr Chadwick. Coupled with poor weather during the summer the trustees recognised there would not be enough cash coming in to survive the winter.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the refusal by East Cambridgeshire District Council to loan them further funds and until Cambridgeshire Acre stepped in the likelihood of closure by November loomed large.

On paper the centre – set up by local people half a century or so ago- looks profitable with admissions, courses, revenue grants, memberships and training netting the centre �316,000 last year – only slightly down on 2010. However the past year was better for donations and gifts- up from �8,941 to �29,503, meaning almost parity in the total sum available.

The 23 staff employed at Mepal swallowed �231,027 of this income and other costs – including courses, premises and depreciation – added a further �168,659 to the overheads.

Ms Bennett, now reviewing the accounts, is painfully aware that since last year Mepal’s finances have worsened, with expenditure up and income down. With the core need to provide low cost, value for money leisure for young people – whose families like many have been hard hit by the recession- that has had an affect on the centre’s income.

Mr Chadwick is delighted a rescue package for the centre has been put together- he has been involved in Mepal since the winter of 1983 when the county council, who had been running it, decided to save money and shut it down.

“Many local people, including myself, campaigned hard to keep Mepal open,” he recalls. “Three district councils, East and South Cambs plus Fenland agreed to fund Mepal by giving �7,000 each to keep it open.”

A trust was formed the following year and so began the task of raising money, adding to the buildings, buying new boats, putting in disabled equipment, and opening offices and a canteen and caf�.

Mr Chadwick said Fenland District Council decided later to withdraw its grant followed a year or two later by South Cambs. East Cambs greatly reduced its grant to Mepal.

Fiona Wynn, who has been helping the Mepal Outdoor Centre as a volunteer since the end of last year, is also hopeful of the future.

“The staff, trustees and other volunteers have all worked unbelievably hard over a very short period of time to increase the income for the charity over the crucial summer period,” she said,

“Unfortunately, time, weather and blue green algae have all contributed in us failing to achieve sufficient funds to keep the centre going through this winter.

“Every year the centre is used and loved by approximately 25,000 children and adults from all over East Anglia. Indeed the 2013 summer term residential courses are almost fully booked already!

Steve Davies volunteer coach for the canoe club feels “the thought of losing such a wonderful facility for schools and the public is devastating”.

The centre is based on the shores of a beautiful 20 acre lake and currently offers a huge range of clubs, courses and activities in sailing, canoeing, raft building, rock climbing, windsurfing, high ropes, target shooting, team building, archery, and much more.

There is also a 32 bed residential accommodation facility and a cafe.

If Cambridgeshire Acre does help provide the centre with a viable future, its chief executive will be delighted.

“At the heart of our initiative is our belief that this valuable asset should be safeguarded for the benefit of local people and the wider community,” she said.

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