Arson is blamed for ‘heartbreaking’ decision to close Mepal Outdoor Centre and hand lease back to East Cambs District Council
PUBLISHED: 14:21 20 February 2017 | UPDATED: 09:33 21 February 2017
An arson attack which caused ‘£100,000s’ worth of damage has been blamed for the closure of Mepal Outdoor Centre.
Trustees, who have been running the charitable enterprise for the past four years, have handed the lease back to landlords East Cambridgeshire District Council.
Kirsten Bennett, secretary of the trustees board, said the decision was “absolutely heartbreaking” for the trustees who have worked so hard to turn the centre around.
The centre was in danger of closing four years ago but the current trustees board was set up from community volunteers with administrative help from Cambridgeshire Acre to keep it going.
Ms Bennett said: “We have all worked so hard over the past four years to try to turn it from a loss making venture, with a bad reputation, into the slightly profit making business it is today. We were making such excellent progress, but the fire has forced us to take too many steps backward.”
The fire, which happened sometime during Christmas week (December 23 to December 28) followed a break-in at the activity centre off the A142 Chatteris road, in which thieves took garden tools and change from a vending machine.
The culprits set fire to the vending machine which caused serious structural damage to the building. The metal roof will need replacing according Ms Bennett, who said there was also terrible smoke damage to the premises.
“The fire was in the main building and has caused damage to the wall, which will need repairing, and the metal roof which has buckled. The insurance claim is going through, but it is going to take months before repairs can be done.
“We have a very small cash reserve because of the progress we have made, but we cannot survive without an income during the summer.
“The trustees have worked so hard to turn the centre around and make it work, so closing it down has been a really heartbreaking decision for all concerned. We have built the centre’s reputation back up and last year we had over 7,000 school children come to enjoy the activities and stay in the accommodation.
“It really was working, but unfortunately this is just a step backwards too far, it is going to be so difficult to recover. It is so sad, but we have to be realistic.
“We have spent the past two months trying to find a way to keep going but it has not been possible,” said Ms Bennett.
Councillor Richard Hobbs, chairman of the council’s commercial services committee said: “We recognise the amount of volunteer hours put into the centre over the last four years and I’m saddened that it has come to this conclusion. East Cambridgeshire District Council recognise that it is a much-loved community asset and will be taking back the site and exploring possible options for the future of the facility.”
A police spokesman said: “We were investigating a burglary at the Mepal Outdoor Centre on Chatteris Road between 11am on December 23 and 10am on December 28. The premises was broken in to and some garden tools were taken along with some loose change from the vending machine. The vending machine was also set alight causing structural damage to the building. We would like to hear from anyone who has any information.”
A fire spokesman confirmed they had been called on December 28 - after the fire was out. The cause was deliberate.