By MIKE DALE (Squash Mad Correspondent)
The pandemic accelerated the decline in player numbers at many provincial squash clubs and Harlow Hill in North Yorkshire is no exception. Its future could be secured, however, by an innovative joint venture proposal with a bigger cross-town rival.
Harlow Hill is a characterful but dated, volunteer-run, three-court club in the west of Harrogate with a small gym and unstaffed bar. Just three miles across town is Harrogate Sports and Fitness Centre (HSFC), an upmarket, four-court club with two padel courts and a 4,000sq ft gym.
Membership at Harlow Hill has declined since the pandemic to the point where the club’s medium-term future as a going concern is in jeopardy.
But HSFC’s board has come up with a proposal to merge the clubs into one Community Amateur Sports Club and turn it into a centre of excellence.
As part of the plans, part of Harlow Hill could help support elite players who will base themselves in Harrogate for training and represent the club in a new PSL team.
It is proposed that Harlow Hill’s current cash reserves of £35,000 would be at least matched by HSFC to fund development of a peak-time bar/cafe, plus improved studio space at the Harlow Hill site.
HSFC’s ambition to be a centre of excellence also includes subsidised coaching and junior memberships for local schools. The merger, and the consequent access to seven courts across both sites, would allow this vision to become reality, while saving Harlow Hill from closure.
Harrogate has long been a squash stronghold in Yorkshire. Former England coach David Pearson (formerly coach of Nick Matthew) is based at HSFC and ex-world No.2 Jenny Duncalf is one of many professionals the club has spawned. Former world No.1 and Commonwealth Games gold medallist James Willstrop lives in the town and often trains at Harlow Hill.
Further proof of HSFC’s growing stature is their hosting of a PSA Challenger Tour competition from December 8-11. The 16-draw men’s $3k event will feature New Zealand’s Yorkshire-based Chileshe brothers, Lwamba and Temwa, recent World Junior Championship runner-up Finnlay Withington and home-grown talent Josh Rowley.
Harlow Hill’s members voted unanimously at an EGM earlier this month to further explore the merger proposal, which would see shared income, expenditure and operations.
Under the proposal, HSFC members would be allowed to use courts across both sites, but Harlow Hill members would only be permitted to use their own three courts. Many of the existing Harlow members may choose to upgrade to full members of HSFC.
The next step is to complete due diligence including legal advice, structural surveys, financial reviews and assurance regarding outstanding financial/other obligations, litigation, insurance claims and complaints.
Once this due diligence is complete, there will be an EGM giving HSFC members the opportunity to vote for or against the merger. If HSFC members vote in favour, Harlow Hill’s members will vote to decide whether or not they wish to proceed.
HSFC manager James Gaston said: “I have fond memories of playing at Harlow Hill and it sad to hear that it is struggling. They have great squash courts and many devoted members. All of the board at HSFC are passionate about keeping squash going and would love to help secure the future of squash at Harlow Hill.”