THE curtain has finally fallen on hopes of a cinema returning to Fleet town centre after nearly 50 years.

Fitness First Plc has finally taken over the unit above Woolworths in Hart Shopping Centre which was originally earmarked for a cinema.

It brings to an end years of hope of attracting a cinema operator to the town.

Campaigners were first dealt a blow two years ago when shopping centre owner Bourne End revealed it had failed to attract an operator and had applied for permission to turn the unit above Woolworths into a fitness centre.

But Hart Council's development control committee threw out the scheme when members learned Bourne End could still pursue a nightclub use for the unit.

A similar sequence of events a number of years ago meant planners were forced to allow a new nightclub — The Warehouse, now called Jaxx — to be built under Hart Shopping Centre.

But campaigners were given fresh hope in September 2000 when Bourne End vowed to spend the next year looking for a cinema operator and put forward a package of proposals in the hope it could persuade Hart to give planning permission.

This included Bourne End agreeing to negotiate exclusively with cinema operators up until September 30, 2001, and giving up its right to pursue a nightclub, bingo hall and casino use for the new unit.

But the shopping centre owner failed to attract a cinema operator and Fitness First has now exchanged contracts.

Advised by Vail Williams, it has taken the 16,500 sq ft unit on a 25-year lease from Shops Etc.

Peter Spelman of Vail Williams said: "This will undoubtedly be an enormously successful club as there is no other commercial health club in Fleet and the town has expanded rapidly in both commercial and residential terms in recent years."

Last year councillors were told the shopping centre owners were having trouble attracting a cinema operator to Fleet because they only had permission for a five-screen cinema, whereas all the big operators wanted at least nine screens.

Hart Council cabinet member Sharyn Wheale, who has special responsibility for Fleet and met regularly with Bourne End to discuss ways of attracting a cinema operator to the town, said: "I can't think of any stone that has been left unturned trying to get a cinema in this town.

"We've been to specialist operators and we've even gone to the people who run the cinema at Camberley.

"The problem is that there has been a downturn in the market and operators just cannot make a small town centre cinema work.

"It's a shame that if we want a cinema we will have to compete with the out-of-town multiplexes.

"The problem is it's now getting to the situation where there are too many of them and people are travelling to Basingstoke, Reading, Bracknell and Guildford.

"However, I still feel there is a need for a small cinema in the town centre and I am still looking at various options."

Fellow cabinet member Carol Leversha, who also campaigned hard for a cinema, said: "It's a tragedy that there are no commercial operators willing to take up such a small site.

"The set-up costs for the size of the Fleet cinema would have been £1.5million so no-one was going to touch it.

"The shopping centre owners did their best to market the site as a cinema but it really was a no-go.

"However, all is not lost because I am still trying to get funding to set up a cinema club in the Harlington Centre.

"The problem is that the start-up costs for that are about £30,000 and rising.

"I wish the leisure centre every success and at least we have conditioned the planning permission so we will never get a nightclub, so that's one good thing in our favour."