A north-east businessman has admitted that his dream of building a tourist hotspot on the site of the former Tufted Duck hotel might never happen.
Conrad Ritchie unveiled his ambition to create the new holiday haven after the popular St Combs venue was demolished in 2021.
His plans to breathe new life into the small fishing village were given the stamp of approval by Aberdeenshire Council last week.
This came a year after the proposals were officially lodged, and even longer since preliminary talks were launched.
And now this delay could mean the highly anticipated project never gets off the ground, with the businessman lamenting soaring costs since he came up with the idea…
Conrad tells us:
- How much he has already ploughed into the Tufted Duck scheme
- Why he now finds himself in a “Catch-22” situation when it comes to giving back to the village where he was raised – and “wants to do right by”
- And he opens up on how he might have to admit defeat in the weeks ahead
Who is Conrad Ritchie, and what are his Tufted Duck plans?
Conrad, a north-east business stalwart, left Score Group three years ago after spending three years at the helm alongside his brother.
It came after it was sold for £120 million.
But now he hopes to build a new bistro and bar on the footprint of the hotel.
The site would also have space for 32 motorhomes.
However the estimated price to develop the site has doubled since the idea was born.
Two years ago, the project would have cost £600,000 to complete.
But now the businessman says he could be expected to pay up to £1.2m.
Why has the project cost shot up in price?
Conrad blames Aberdeenshire Council’s lengthy planning process, saying it has taken “two very painful long years” to get permission for the development.
He added: “A lot of people think this is just going to happen but it won’t unless there is a change in the cost of materials.
“If they come back down to the normal level and stabilise then the project likely will happen.
“But at the moment the cost just makes it unviable.”
Why did the Tufted Duck in St Combs close?
The four-star Tufted Duck hotel was built in 1973, and was taken over by the Ritchie family in 2008.
The Ritchies heavily invested in the venue over the years and it became a popular destination for celebrations such as birthday parties and weddings.
But Conrad and wife Lesley Anne decided to close the doors to guests for the final time at the beginning of the pandemic.
Conrad explained: “For lots of reasons it just wasn’t working.
“Hospitality was really struggling so we went ahead and applied for the demolition warrant and we knocked it down.
“To be honest, once you were inside the old Tufted Duck it was fantastic, but from the outside it was an early 1970s ugly box and it just didn’t sit right.”
Couple ‘delighted’ to have permission but now facing Catch-22
Conrad and Lesley Anne first put in plans for the spot in early 2021, but they were refused in February 2022.
The couple went back to the drawing board and a year later, submitted the updated plan which was approved last week.
But while they awaited a decision, they found the cost of construction materials kept increasing.
“The reality is, had it been approved 18 months ago then today it would have been built, in operation and employing local people,” Conrad explained.
“I’m in a Catch-22 situation, absolutely delighted we’ve got planning permission but it’s not plain sailing.
“There are quite a lot of financial obstacles that we need to overcome if this is going to happen.
“But I keep going back to the fact, had it not taken so long to move through the planning process then we might not be in such a sticky situation.”
What does the local authority have to say about it?
But Aberdeenshire Council argued that the choice was either for it to take a long time – or be rejected again.
A spokesman explained: “The time taken was necessary to ensure planning approval.
“A quicker decision could have been taken in the absence of the necessary information and revisions asked for.
“But that ultimately would not have resulted in a recommendation of approval.”
The spokesman also noted that the application was submitted and determined within a year.
‘It’s not looking positive’
Conrad was was born and brought up in St Combs, and says he has a personal attachment to the village.
“I want to do the right thing by the area and the people,” he added.
“When the building was demolished, the intention was always to come back with something that was going to work.
“I think it will work, it all comes down to timing.”
Conrad has already spent more than £200,000 knocking down the former hotel and paying planning and architect fees.
“My heart is still in it but it has to be financially viable and at this moment in time with the way the world is, it’s not looking positive,” he said.
Will the new bar keep the Tufted Duck moniker?
Should the development progress, Conrad aims to name the new restaurant after its predecessor.
He explained: “It’s part of local history and had been there since 1973.
“I’m not saying that I’m in love with the name, but we wouldn’t change it.”
Conrad will now look at the business plan for the project over the next couple of weeks before planning the next steps.
“We’ll have to make a decision. Do we go ahead or do we stall and at this stage, I don’t know.”