IT was the shopping centre that changed the face of Poole and has even been credited with saving the town.

The Dolphin Centre – known for its first two decades as the Arndale Centre – is currently undergoing a major upgrade.

And the centre could even have a multiplex cinema by the end of next year, in good time for its 50th birthday in 2019.

The earliest plans for a major indoor shopping centre in Poole were drawn up in 1958.

By 1964, the Echo was reporting: “Poole people may in three years’ time be doing their shopping in a revolutionary indoor ‘market’.”

A £1million scheme had been put forward by the Arndale Property Trust, although the cost would later double.

The huge scheme involved the loss of Ladies’ Walking Field, as well as the demolition of properties in Seldown Lane and Kingland Road. The loss of the land provoked an outcry and led to a public inquiry.

Work began in September 1967 and the centre finally opened in July 1969, with key tenants including Beales,, J Sainsbury and Boots.

The Arndale had six big ‘stores’, 93 shops, 30,000sqft of offices, a bus station, a sports centre, library, pub and car park. Two shopping malls ran between the bus station and the high street, with a third providing access to Kingland Crescent. A multi-storey car park contained 1,300 spaces.

The mayor, Alderman A Lloyd-Allen, said at the opening that the centre was “always a hotly debated proposition to the members of the council”.

But he added: “We were quite sure that this sort of covered, air conditioned shopping precinct, where shoppers can come and forget the traffic and the weather, must be the sort of shopping our residents would appreciate and would be a great boon for our people. We are now quite sure we made the right decision.”

The public library opened the following May on two storeys, offering “new standards of comfort and service for the town’s booklovers and students”, the Echo reported. It offered more than four times the floor area of the previous library in South Road.

At the Arndale’s first birthday celebrations in 1970, project director Colin Greenwood said it was proving so successful that it was likely to be extended.

That September, the Echo reported on its enormous success, with one trader proclaiming that “every day is like Saturday here”.

Marks and Spencer opened in the Arndale in March 1971, with a branch more than double the size of its predecessor.

Countless shoppers would enjoy the under-cover mall in the following years. And generations of children whiled away their time playing on the wooden hippo, turtle, snake and whale created by artist Peter Hand, which stood in the thoroughfares until 1997.

The idea of a cinema in the centre was mooted as early as 1970, when Town and City Arndale Developments said the linkage between the main building and the car park could hold a 400-seater venue.

The idea came up again in 1972, as two screens seating 600 people.

The economic crises of the 1970s led to Phase Two of the Arndale development being abandoned in 1975, only to be revived two years later.

Phase Two was as controversial as the first development, requiring the demolition of still more of Poole's old buildings.

It was given outline planning permission in July 1980. A public inquiry followed in 1982, to resolve plans to compulsorily purchase properties in Towngate Road and close roads.

Phase Two would include three more shops, a rooftop car park and a town square, which was to be named Falkland Square to mark the town’s links with the forces that had served in that year’s war with Argentina.

Poole council planning officer Graham Rogers told the public inquiry: “This town would have died a long time ago if it hadn’t been for the Arndale Centre, contrary to popular belief.”

A topping-out ceremony for Phase Two took place in March 1984, with a time capsule sealed inside six inches of concrete on the top of the new 130-space car park.

The mayor, Cllr Roger Buss, said: “This is history in the making for the town. Poole is a wonderful town and it is gratifying to see the way it is developing.”

A name change was in store for the Dolphin Centre as a £7m revamp of the whole complex was planned for 1988.

The prospect of dropping the Arndale name was not popular with some, including town clerk Ian Andrews and a number of councillors.

Cllr Dorothy Hackworth said: “It is very difficult to change a name when the local inhabitants are used to calling it the Arndale.”

The refurbished Dolphin Centre, with new escalators and panoramic lift, was opened in 1989.

Plenty more challenges were ahead for the centre, with the rise of out-of-town retail parks and then the arrival of internet shopping.

Legal & General became the centre’s latest owner in 2013. It has begun an 18-month improvement plan, which it says will unlock £26m in investment.

And Empire cinemas has said it plans to open a multiplex at the site of the former Argos store.

John Grinnell, centre manager at the Dolphin Shopping Centre, said: “It’s a really exciting time for the shopping centre and the town as a whole.

"The £26m programme of investment will further shift the shopping centre towards a truly family-oriented offer and bring an element of trade that will extend into the evenings. The introduction of the exciting multiplex cinema will bring with it an array of dining choices, giving further reasons for residents and tourists to visit throughout the day and evening.

“A range of top brands have signed up to join the refresh of the centre, including Swedish fashion favourite, H&M, which will take the former BHS unit over two levels. JD and Smiggle have also signed new 10 year leases at the centre, following the recently announced signing of German shoe retailer Deichmann and the upsizing and lease extension by fashion brand New Look.

“Combined with the improvement works, we’re determined to significantly improve the facilities to appeal to all our customers.”

It's clear the health of Poole will continue to be bound up with the fortunes of its biggest shopping venue.