By RYAN TAYLOR
THE SAXA Vord leisure complex which helped bring regeneration to Unst after the RAF pulled out of the island in 2005 has been put on the market.
Owner Frank Strang is offering the entire property in Haroldswick, which includes 21 self-catering houses plus a hostel, for £2.75 million.
Although the whole complex is for sale, Mr Strang hopes to sell only part of it.
That way, he says, at least some of the money freed up from the sale can be reinvested into the complex.
The move has sparked concerns among community leaders, who fear the complex could be mismanaged if it falls into the wrong hands.
But Mr Strang, who himself lives in Speyside, says he is keen to put the complex into the hands of its own community.
The decision, he said, reflected what he openly set out to do in the first place when he bought over the base three years ago.
“There is absolutely no hidden agenda – and this has absolutely nothing at all to do with the credit crunch or financial problems here or anywhere else,” he said.
“When I took the place over two and a half years ago I said my vision was to acquire the site, turn it into a destination resort and then look to bring in local ownership, which would allow me to hold up Saxa Vord as an example of what such a regeneration can achieve.
“I met with the community council in Unst a couple of weeks ago to tell them of the plans. “Other than some valid criticisms, they said they were very pleased with what Saxa had done for Unst.”
Mr Strang said he would remain committed to the area, and even if someone offered the full asking price he would seek to retain a foothold in the development.
“It’s very difficult to manage from a distance. We’ve got staff up there who really care, so from a Shetland perspective it would be nice to have some form of local ownership.
“I’m trying to ensure there is a longevity to the business, and that it remains sustainable.”
Mr Strang said the complex had attracted acclaim from far and wide, despite some customers experiencing teething troubles when the complex first opened for business.
Back then the move provided a glimmer of hope for community leaders in Unst, which lost 40 per cent of its work force when the RAF moved out.
“This year alone we had four and a half thousand visitor nights from April to August – and that’s not counting the people who just came through the restaurant and bar.
“We’ve had 27 people working throughout the summer. It’s seasonal work but they’ve been pretty flat out.”
A lot of that work has been to do with customers from within Shetland, who have been visiting the complex in their droves.
Mr Strang said 61 per cent of visitors over the summer came from within the isles.
He said he expected trade to go up again next year, as people choose to avoid travelling large distances in the face of rising costs.
Mr Strang said he had invested a seven figure sum into the business, but scotched rumours he had simply benefited from investment by public agencies.
Earlier this year he criticised a response team set up by Shetland Enterprise in the wake of the RAF departure for failing to help local businesses.
“People assume we’ve taken public sector grants and then walked away. We’ve had nothing.”
Money from the sale will be used to invest in a renewable heating solution, which will replace the complex’s unreliable and inefficient system.
“The negative side to Saxa Vord has always been its centralised heating system. It’s heating the whole site and with oil prices heading north recently, it was becoming expensive to heat the site.”
Chairman of the Unst Community Council Laurence Robertson greeted the news with some caution.
He said the community would have to “wait and see” what interest came from potential buyers.
“We’ve seen what he [Frank Strang] has done with the place so we know how serious he is about it. He’s still taking on work and sprucing the place up. I’ve been through it and as far as we are aware it will be in action from next April as well as December this year.
“We’ll have to start looking into whether it’s a realistic possibility to have it sold. There’s nobody up here with huge sums of money to invest.”