Analysis: Sparse crowds and financial questions as Donald Trump's so-called homecoming proves a damp squib
Compared with the frenzy of his 2018 visit, when police snipers were positioned on the roof of Turnberry’s hotel, and protestors included a paraglider from Greenpeace, Mr Trump’s return to his mother’s homeland has been decidedly low-key.
Given Mr Trump was here as a private citizen, there were no public officials or dignitaries waiting to greet him. In Aberdeenshire, the only notable attendee was Ross Thomson, the former Tory MP, who dutifully asked Mr Trump to autograph his red MAGA baseball cap.
At Turnberry, meanwhile, I heard only one voice shouting out in anger as Mr Trump played a round of golf - the remark, unfortunately, cannot be printed - and the handful of people that turned up to watch either categorised themselves as curious onlookers, or staunch supporters.
But the visit was muted in other ways. Some of my sources at Mr Trump’s Scottish companies had wondered whether his time here would coincide with a significant announcement about his businesses. The big reveal of a new project perhaps, or an uptick in investment. One even speculated that Mr Trump might announce an agreement with the controversial Saudi Arabia-backed LIV golf tour.
That latter prospect thas been the subject of considerable speculation in the golfing press. However, I have always tended to give it short shrift, given how other sources have repeatedly told me of Mr Trump’s determination to ensure that under his watch, Turnberry hosts a fifth Open Championship, and its first since 2009. “Status is everything,” one said.
As it turned out, there were no such proclamations during his visit; in fact, it would not be uncharitable to suggest that there was nothing at all of note. The highlight of Mr Trump’s whirlwind three days in Scotland, arguably, was his attendance at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to break ground for a second course at his resort in Aberdeenshire, where he announced that it would be named after his Lewis-born mother, Mary Anne MacLeod.
Even so, if you sensed something familiar about that particular announcement, your suspicions would be well placed; the course’s name was first revealed in October 2020, when Aberdeenshire Council approved the plans.
Since then, of course, Scotland has endured a torrid pandemic that has scuppered and delayed the plans of many businesses big and small. Yet it seems reasonable to ask the Trump Organisation why has it taken the best part of two years and seven months for enabling works and ground surveys to get underway at the site? Could such graft not have been underway before Mr Trump arrived with his gold-plated scissors?
Similar questions exist around the Trump Estate, a development of 500 properties, as well as dozens of hotel cottages and retail spaces, to be sited on the Aberdeenshire property. The last substantial update about the scheme was in September 2019, when it was announced that almost 500 people - including overseas parties - had registered an interest in the development’s houses. The Trump Organisation pledged to invest £150m in the expansion, but it is unclear when it will be completed, or how much has been spent on it so far.
And what of Turnberry, the jewel in the Trump Organisation’s property crown? Thanks to freedom of information legislation, I learned that Mr Trump’s firm had enlisted architects to develop plans for a “world class” coastal retreat on swaths of farmland he owns. The vision set out was designed to appeal to wealthy golfers and retirees, with hundreds of luxury properties to be built on a Florida-style campus on the Firth of Clyde coastline.
But that incongruous proposal has failed to make the cut in South Ayrshire Council’s local development plan - essentially a framework for what developments will be permitted in the largely rural region - and reporters at the Scottish Government’s planning and environmental appeals division have made it clear the Trump Organisation’s requests should not be granted.
When I asked about the status of Mr Trump’s grand plans last January, Sarah Malone, executive vice president at Trump International Scotland, told me that there had not yet been a formal application to develop the site at Turnberry, but she said one would be made “in due course.” She added that the plans for Aberdeenshire had not changed and would “be brought forward over the next 12 months.”
Yet nearly 16 months later, the questions still outnumber the answers. Could one reason for that be Mr Trump’s goal of regaining the presidency, and the demands that particular ambition has on his time (which is to say nothing of the demands imposed by his various legal troubles)? Perhaps, but it does not fully explain the delays. For years now, his second son, Eric, has been running the show in Scotland, especially at Turnberry, and he is a regular visitor to both courses, as well as the Trump’s resort in Doonbeg, Ireland.
Is the current economic turmoil impacting on the expansion proposals? It is not an unreasonable working theory. After all, Mr Trump’s companies, like many others, saw their turnover fall significantly during the pandemic, and in the latest accounts of Turnberry’s parent entity, Eric bemoaned the fallout from Brexit, noting how supply chains and staff availability had been adversely impacted.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that although Mr Trump incorporated his first firm in Scotland nearly 18 years ago, not a single one of his businesses here have ever turned a profit. In fact, their cumulative losses stand at more than £76m. The Trump Organisation has repeatedly said it is committed to its long-term ambitions in Scotland, but as Mr Trump heads off to visit his Irish course, his so-called homecoming has been a bit of a damp squib.
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