Campaigners have warned the future of a £23million sports complex could be in jeopardy if councillors do not commit to it financially.
The proposed £23million Highland Arena – complete with a cycling velodrome – has already been approved in principal, but a crucial budget meeting at the cash-strapped local authority next month could condemn the project to the scrapheap.
Supporters claim councillors must back the development or lose it completely as an offer of a £7million grant from SportScotland will expire if it is not included in Highland Council’s five-year capital programme.
But Councillor Alex Graham, whose Inverness West constituency covers the Bught Park area where the complex is planned, has warned the authority was facing massive cuts and that he – like many of his colleagues – will be prioritising education and roads over leisure projects.
John MacMillan, chair of local cycling charity HiVelo, said: “The window of opportunity for the Highland Arena is unfortunately closing rapidly.
“A long-standing offer of a £7million grant from national agency SportScotland will expire if the project is not included in the council’s capital programme.
“Potential European finance must also be spent by 2020, and other donors will need confirmation to maintain momentum.”
He suggested that the corresponding local authority investment could be spread over three years, adding: “HiVelo is therefore urging its supporters and indeed, all those who enjoy any sports and leisure activities, to register their support with local councillors before the meeting in February.
The concept for the arena, which along with a 250-metre velodrome would have facilities for athletics, judo, gymnastics and tennis, was actually conceived by the council.
It had been hoped it would attract funding from the £315million City Deal approved last year by the UK and Scottish Governments, but missed out.
Mr MacMillan said if funding was committed by the council the complex could be ready and open for community use by 2020.
And he suggested the projected cost could be substantially offset by grants from SportScotland, public agencies, European Union and charities, plus donations from business, philanthropic and community sources.
He added that the new arena facilities “promise other substantial economic and regional development benefits” including an area for concerts, shows, exhibitions and conferences which he claims currently bypass the Highlands.
He said it would be a flexible cultural venue with capacity for up to 3,5000 people and would attract significant new business to the region, adding: “The proposed arena is crucial to our ambitions to grow every branch of cycling here in the north of Scotland for the benefit of future generations.
“The velodrome and associated facilities will provide a safe all-weather training and fitness venue for enjoyment by users of every type and persuasion.
“It will fundamentally improve our sport by dispensing with the requirement for Highlanders to make long and expensive journeys south to ride on tracks which are already over-subscribed.
“The Highlands are especially deficient in regional performance sports facilities compared to the rest of Scotland, and the new arena will fix that glaring ‘black hole’ – it’s a real gamechanger.”
Mr MacMillan said he recognised the wider financial outlook for Highland Council was constrained, but added: “The Highlands still require continuing investment to meet the wide-ranging needs of the whole community.
“That demands a balance of schemes – schools, roads, affordable housing, social care and leisure projects – when and where suitable opportunities arise.”
However, Councillor Graham feared the worst for the proposed sports complex.
He said: “The council is facing extremely tough decision as far as its revenue and capital programmes are concerned, given the cuts being imposed.
“There is huge pressure for new schools and roads and bridges. I would personally want to ensure these were take care of before we move on to a regional sports centre.”
The five-year capital programme will be discussed by councillors on February 15.