Originally, during the 1980s and into 1990s, Whitley Park was an employee sportsground owned by British Gas Northern. In 1995, as part of the break up of British Gas, it was transferred to the newly formed gas company, Transco, who decided that it did not wish to run an employee sports facility and the future of the local sports site was threatened. However, an employee led group joined together to save the site for all current and retired British Gas employees in the North East. With Transco’s agreement and support they were able to purchase the site under favourable terms and in 1996 Blue Flames Sporting Club Limited (“the Club”) was established to run the sports facilities.
It was set up as a not-for-profit company with a volunteer Board of Directors and a Club membership who were mainly current or retired British Gas employees. Its stated objective was to provide quality accessible sports facilities at affordable prices for members.
The Club invested to expand the existing Clubhouse, adding a second, larger function room and a fitness gym. Investment and running costs were funded from the Club’s commercial elements (the gym and function rooms) and to a lesser extent from the subsidised sports fees. However, the Club struggled financially until the excellence of the grounds helped attract to Newcastle United to use Blue Flames as a temporary training base in 2001. Newcastle wanted a new purpose built venue but needed a high quality interim training ground while they looked for a suitable site. In the event they ended up training at Whitley Park for 2 years. This helped put the Club on a sounder financial footing when they left to move next door to their new training centre at Darsley Park.
However, the beneficial connections made between the two clubs continued, especially with the Club’s head groundsman, Eddie Rutherford, being recruited by Newcastle United. Eddie is now responsible for the grounds at St James Park, Darsley Park & NUFC Academy but stayed on as a director on the board of Blue Flames for many years and is still a grounds consultant for Whitley Park.
This connection has led to Newcastle playing many of their reserve team home fixtures at Blue Flames and using the ground as an overflow site for training when Newcastle play host to visiting clubs.
Many famous football teams have trained here, including Roma, Dynamo Kiev, Juventus, Barcelona Sporting Lisbon, Aston Villa – plus National teams like England U21s and Turkey.
At around the same time that Newcastle United departed, the board agreed to another beneficial partnership. This was with Northumberland Football Association (NFA). At the time they were looking for a new home base for local football and the Club agreed to lease part of the site to them.
This resulted in the development of a full sized floodlit pitch and spectator stand along with a new HQ building. These new facilities were opened in 2002, making Whitley Park the focus of local grass roots football in the North East. As well as being the administrative centre for local league and cup football, the high quality floodlit pitch is used by Northumberland FA for cup finals and other prestige matches, and as the home venue Newcastle Reserves
Following the arrival of Northumberland FA on site the board decided that the Club needed indoor facilities to supplement its outdoor grassed areas and decided to build a Sports Hall and a third function room. This was developed in partnership with Sport England, England Netball, the Lawn Tennis Association and the England Cricket Board.
The project started in 2003 and by 2005 the Club was ready to start building. However, legal problems caused serious delays which led to spiraling costs, so that when the Sports Hall was finally built in 2007 the project was more than 50% over budget. In the end, despite raising over half a million in grants* (over half from England Netball) the Club had to borrow well over a million pounds to complete the project. This left the club with loan repayments well in excess of the original project budget and an ongoing financial challenge.
* In addition to sports funding via England Netball & the LTA, significant grants were also provided by SITA Trust and Northern Rock Foundation, along with some smaller grants and favourable commercial loans from Unity Trust Bank and S&N Brewery.
As part of this development, and in response to financial and legal constraints, the board decided that the Club should become a Community Amateur Sports Club (CASC). As well as bringing significant tax and rate relief benefits, CASC membership offered the opportunity to widen the scope and membership base of the Club. To attain such status required the Club to be open to the whole community and this in turn meant that existing members (current and retired gas employees) had to waive their ownership rights over the Club. At an EGM in 2005 the existing members agreed to this by an overwhelming majority. This paved the way for the Club to become an accessible community asset, open to all. The constitution of the Club was amended to reflect this and a new mission statement was adopted:
“To provide accessible quality sports and leisure facilities affordable prices to the community at large.”
The Club was now able to apply for CASC status and this was attained in late 2005.
Everything was now in place and, following some re-branding, the new indoor Blue Flames Conference & Leisure Centre was opened in October 2007. The facility contained a Sports Hall with 3 full size multi-sport courts particularly aimed at Netball, Tennis, Cricket Nets and 5-aside Football, plus a new function room with conferencing and function facilities for up to 250 people.
The Opening Ceremony was performed by Newcastle United legend, Peter Beardsley.
While playing for Newcastle, Peter trained at Whitley Park, so was well-acquainted with the excellent facilities available at Blue Flames.
The indoor facilities of the Sports Hall block now complemented the well maintained playing fields and across the site the Club caters for:
Testimony to the quality of our facilty was demonstrated when Blue Flames was selected as one of only 20 sites in the North East to be included in the 2012 Olympics brochure as a venue for a Pre Games Training Camp.
Since opening the Sports Hall the usage of the site has expanded considerably so that over 2,000 people visit Blue Flames each week. However, the financial burden of the bank loan repayments has only been achieved by rigorous cost control and the pursuit of new commercial income streams. This has seen the Club running a wide range of activities from Summer fairs to Bootcamp, from residential teenage lifeskills courses to walking football, from Car Boot sales to Wedding Fairs, and so on. Such initiatives and tight management has seen the Club keep its nose just above water – despite the recession.
In 2013 the Club saw an opportunity to significantly improve its financial prospects and to reduce the bank loan by around a third. This was an offer from developers to buy a small perimeter strip of land in order to give road access to a new housing estate behind Whitley Park. This was put to members, with a strong recommendation from the Directors, at the AGM in December 2013, where it was unanimously agreed to proceed. The road project was initiated and the new road was built in 2014.
Aside from significantly reducing the bank loan, the windfall proceeds and benefits from this project have delivered improvements across the site as follows –
With reduced repayments and investment in site facilities the Club is currently in a healthy position to continue to deliver Sports and Leisure facilities to the community