Melksham could receive a £55million pound boost if the Wilts & Berks Canal is brought back through the town, according to a new study.
The old line of the canal has been lost under modern developments but a plan has been submitted which would allow narrowboats to use the River Avon instead.
The Wilts & Berks Canal Trust hopes to create five kilometres of navigable waterway to include new locks, bridges, a towpath and cycleway, together with visitor mooring, landscaping, environmental improvements and even a hydro-electric power scheme.
The ‘Melksham Link’ would create a new junction with the Kennet & Avon Canal near Semington.
In the long-term it could even reach the Thames & Severn Canal near Cricklade and the River Thames near Abingdon, connecting Lacock, Chippenham, Calne, Royal Wootton Bassett and Swindon.
An independent report by AMEC Environment & Infrastructure UK Ltd draws on the experiences of the nearby K&A Canal and other studies to assess the potential economic and tourism benefits of the proposed route.
It suggests the Melksham Link could spark an investment of £55m in the town over the following ten years through riverside regeneration and canalside residential and commercial opportunities – these could include a major new marina and housing, as well as a camping or caravan site, a restaurant and cafe or a new hotel.
Up to 250 jobs could be created during the initial construction phase alone followed by around 100 new jobs in the tourism sector, and home-owners nearest the route could see significant increases in the value of their homes.
The development could inject up to £7.5m per year into the local economy.
The AMEC report was funded by Wilts & Berks Canal Trust, Wiltshire Council, Melksham Town Council and Melksham Trust.
Canal trust spokesman Chris Coyle said: “We hope local people will share our excitement at the benefits which a restored canal might bring to Melksham, and we urge them to read the report in full to learn more about the opportunities available.
“Of course, there are many variables. Stakeholder discussions and environmental studies continue, and planning permission has not yet been granted, but this new assessment clearly shows how it could transform the fortunes of the entire town.
“The charity hopes to secure the majority of the funding for the restoration from national bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund or developers, and the report highlights other sections of the canal which have already been rebuilt thanks to the generous support of various partners.
“Initially the Melksham Link would simply be an ‘arm’ of the Kennet & Avon but we hope it would unlock further funding to continue the restoration north to Lacock – already a major visitor attraction which would surely draw boaters onto the new route – and then on to Chippenham and beyond.
“Our ultimate aim is to create a new cruising ‘ring’ along the K&A, the Wilts & Berks and the River Thames, with Swindon in the centre, which would exploit the popularity of canals.
“Not only would we be offering a new amenity for boaters, canoeists, walkers, runners, cyclists and anglers, but also a new wildlife corridor with wetland areas and hedgerows which would offset their national decline in recent years, proving new habitats for otters, water voles and kingfishers.
“Such a safe and scenic route between local towns and villages would also reduce the number of local car journeys and encourage more active and healthy lifestyles. Everyone benefits.”
The AMEC report suggests the total construction costs of the Melksham Link would be around £21million and assumes work would start in 2015.
There are three development scenarios which assume the link and regeneration opportunities are successfully delivered.
The most conservative scenario is where Melksham experiences increased activity but with additional visitors, particularly in summer, but there is not enough demand for a new hotel.
The most positive scenario is that Melksham becomes a destination on the Southern Waterways Network with steady volumes of boat traffic from across the region, and new waterfront businesses increase footfall from the town centre to the river.
Existing accommodation sees more overnight visitors and there is enough demand for a new hotel.
Mr Coyle said: “The River Avon is currently an under-used asset with limited access, but one day it could be used to host boat festivals and other events which would help to put Melksham on the tourist map.
“Canals are now being restored at a faster pace than they were originally built and there is already huge public interest in the restoration of the Wilts & Berks along the entire length of the former route.
“But Melksham is by far the most important piece of the jigsaw because it connects with the popular Kennet & Avon Canal – which was also brought back to life after falling derelict.
“Our hope is that a new link would create a ‘domino effect’ where momentum then builds to continue the restoration along the rest of the waterway.”
The full report can be seen at http://bit.ly/1nzHs8m