WINCHESTER civic chiefs say they like the idea of a new sports centre for the district after a petition was presented by campaigners.

Emma Back, of Winchester Fit for the Future, presented the petition with 3,334 signatures to the Council.

The group, comprising some 17 sports clubs, is pressing for the replacement of the River Park Leisure Centre with a state of the art sports and leisure centre, including a 50-metre pool.

Ms Back told councillors: “Local decision-makers must act swiftly, but not rashly. The gap in the market for a high-quality multi-sport centre is so obvious, that if action is not taken by the council, the gap will be filled elsewhere in Hampshire, or by a private company in pursuit of profit, not community benefit.

“We have a genuine once in a lifetime opportunity to bring fantastic sports facilities to our great city and district - to truly inspire a generation.”

Cllr Patricia Stallard, portfolio holder for communities, culture and sport, said the council faced a decision over the future of the RPLC. Nearly 40 years old, it needs major investment just to maintain it perhaps only for another 10-15 years.

Cllr Stallard said the council was not being idle but was considering employing consultants to produce a report.

Cllr Simon Cook, who as chief leisure officer at Winchester used to oversee the RPLC, said a “reality check” was needed. There are only 29 50-metre pools in the whole country.

He said the council could only develop new facilities in partnership with the private sector. “But if you don’t have a dream, as Obama said, you will never achieve what is wanted.”

Cllr Stephen Godfrey, portfolio holder for finance and administration, said it was an exciting project and added “I’m keen to take advantage of the momentum that has built up around the idea. Finance does cast a shadow.”

He added that interest rates are low and a £10million loan at 3.8 per cent for 40 years would cost £500,000 a year to service. “If you can put a business case together we will back you to the hilt.”

Council leader Keith Wood said: “This is the biggest decision the council is likely to take in the next few years, and bigger than anything in the last 20 years. We are anxious to take it forward and make the right decision.”

The campaign has been endorsed by the following:

Louise Damen GB Marathon runner

Julia Beckett GB Swimmer (Olympian)

Nick Gillingham GB Swimmer (Olympian)

Adrian Moorhouse GB Swimmer (Olympian) & 2012 Team GB Ambassador

Roger Black GB 400m runner (Olympian)

Lynn Davies GB Long jumper (Olympic champion) & President of UK Athletics

Jonny Brownlee GB Triathlete (2012 Olympics bronze medallist)

Jeff Stelling TV Sports Presenter

Prof Joy Carter Vice-Chancellor, University of Winchester

Jane Gandee Head, St Swithun’s School

Kay Grimshaw ASA Board Member and former ASA President

Jeremy Evans England Hockey Coach

Julie Keefe Hampshire Junior Squash Organiser

Wendy Allsopp Principal, Lewis-Allsopp School of Dancing