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Tolbooth restaurant boss reveals ‘Michelin ambitions’ as Stonehaven volunteers denied top-floor takeover of landmark

Councillors voted to keep the first floor, which is home to the stylish Tolbooth seafood restaurant, under Aberdeenshire Council's control.

Members of the Stonehaven Tolbooth Association and the historic harbour building. Image: Clarke Cooper/DC Thomson
Members of the Stonehaven Tolbooth Association and the historic harbour building. Image: Clarke Cooper/DC Thomson

Stonehaven volunteers have been given the go-ahead to take the Tolbooth Museum off the council’s hands, but their plans for the whole building were refused as the restaurant upstairs revealed its lofty ambitions.

The future of the category A-listed building, which will celebrate its 550th anniversary next year, was subject of tense talks this week.

Members of the Stonehaven Tolbooth Association wanted to take ownership of the entire Old Pier site from Aberdeenshire Council.

Trustees currently run and manage the popular museum, which was previously a storehouse, courthouse and prison.

The Stonehaven Tolbooth Association will own the ground floor museum and shared access to the courtyard

They lodged a community asset transfer request seeking permission to take over the site, including the restaurant, for just £1.

However, council chiefs instead offered to meet them halfway…

They wanted to keep the popular first floor eatery under their control due to the financial benefit it brings the cash-strapped body.

It would also protect the ongoing lease, as operators seek to take it to new heights.

Officers believed allowing the group to take over the ground floor only, along with access to the courtyard, was the best “long-term and low risk” option.

Restaurant fears raised as ambitions revealed

The transfer was considered by the local authority’s business services committee.

The Tolbooth restaurant is operated by Paul Mair and his dad John, who is the company director, spoke at the meeting to raise the pair’s concerns.

Tolbooth restaurant owner Paul Mair. Image: Paul Glendell/DC Thomson

While he had no objection over the transfer of the museum, he did have some worries about what it could mean for the popular venue.

John explained that they had ploughed more than £200,000 into the building for essential internal upgrades.

They also have ambitious plans to establish the Stonehaven site as a fine dining restaurant and aim to make it into the Michelin Guide.

Tolbooth transfer would create ‘uncertain future’

But, the father and son were worried that including the restaurant in the asset transfer would lead to a “very uncertain future” for the venue.

“We are going to have a serious lack of confidence to further invest, which we will have to do if we want to make the Michelin Guide,” John told the committee.

He even revealed they want to extend their current lease and even ultimately want to buy the building from the council.

The view of Stonehaven harbour from the Tolbooth restaurant. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

He added: “We’re keen to have a good relationship with the museum.

“But business and investment can only be done if you have a good degree of confidence about the future.”

He suggested the duo would be happy maintaining the status quo and wanted Aberdeenshire Council to remain their landlord.

Stonehaven trustees argued their case for full ownership

But Gordon Ritchie and Dennis Collie from the Stonehaven Tolbooth Association argued it wouldn’t be feasible to split the site in two.

Dennis believed having two owners would create responsibility issues if something went wrong or needed repaired.

He also argued that the group have managed to keep the museum running for the last 12 years and were confident they could continue to do so.

‘We’ve got a healthy bank balance’

“The council closed the museum in 2011 and stripped all the contents. Why? Because it couldn’t afford to keep it open,” he said.

“Since then we have refurbished the museum, filled it with artifacts, we’ve got a healthy bank balance and produced a sound business case for going forward.

“We don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to raise money in the way we have done.”

Stonehaven Tolbooth Association trustees Douglas Cusine, Dennis Collie, Andrew Newton and Mary Sutcliffe. Image: Kirstie Topp/DC Thomson

Dennis went on to tell the chamber that just the previous day, the group were awarded £28,000 to pave the courtyard.

But he stressed this would only be given if they could prove ownership of the site.

Fellow trustee Gordon Ritchie said the “precious asset” had suffered from a lack of investment from the council.

He argued: “It’s a listed building and any physical separation would affect the integrity of the listed status.

“We’ve all got the same need to preserve this building for the benefit of the community.”

What did councillors have to say?

Stonehaven councillor Sarah Dickinson backed the group’s plan and suggested the committee allow them to take over the entire site.

She believed doing so would be the “best opportunity” for the building to be looked after and ensure it remains a “positive presence” in the town harbour.

The Tolbooth as seen from Stonehaven harbour. Image: Kath Flannery/DC Thomson

“To enable the association to be as successful as it can be, if they had control of the whole building it will facilitate their access to grants in the longer term.

“They will have investment to make in restoring and repairing the building.”

Splitting site seen as a ‘compromise’

But council leader Gillian Owen wanted the group to be given the museum space only.

While councillor Gwyneth Petrie also believed the ground floor transfer would act as a “compromise”.

She said: “What we have is a commercial business which has said it doesn’t agree with what was proposed and a community group who want to do something with the whole building.

“If we had both parties here today saying ‘We have a plan and we can do this if it was all transferred’, I think I would have looked at this differently.”

Following a vote, the decision to transfer the ground floor only was granted by nine to four.

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