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May 18, 2011

New owner gives cause for concern

When a wealthy Australian hedge fund manager purchased the Ardfin Estate on Jura six months ago, some of the islanders feared the worst. The new owner has yet to pay a visit to the island or share his plans with the community. The only thing they have been told is that one of the island’s main visitor attractions will be closed to visitors this summer – jeopardising the community’s fragile tourism economy

IT IS known as the jewel of Jura, a unique walled garden warmed by the Gulf Stream and one of the main tourist attractions on the Hebridean island. But after its purchase last year by a wealthy Australian hedge fund manager, the famous Jura House Garden will be closed this summer, sparking fears over its future and that of the island’s fragile tourism economy.

The 12,000-acre Ardfin Estate, which includes Jura House Garden, was bought last November by London-based Australian hedge fund manager Greg Coffey, 40, known in financial circles as “the wizard of Oz” for his ability to generate profits.

He is understood not to have visited the island since buying the estate, on which most of Jura’s 210 islanders live and five are employed, since its purchase six months ago. Elaine Campbell, the development officer at the Jura Development Trust, said there was concern that the closure of the garden, which attracts around 2,500 visitors every year, could impact on the island’s tourist economy.

“Everybody has that fear, because the garden had a great number of visitors every year. They’re unique. It would be hard to say that it’s not going to impact us in some way. We’re all very uncertain about it at the moment.”

Coffey, who is married with two children, is believed to have bought the estate for £3.5 million as a holiday home. He earned his nickname after controlling £3.5 billion worth of funds for hedge fund GLG. He later became co-chief investment officer of Moore Europe Capital Management.

Ardfin was sold after the death of its previous owner, Tony Riley-Smith, whose family had owned the sporting estate, which includes seven uninhabited islands and has deer stalking and pheasant shoots, since 1938.

One islander said: “He (Coffey] probably hasn’t a clue what he’s taken on. We know he has plans, we just don’t know what they are yet. He hasn’t communicated them.

“But equally, when a hedge fund manager buys a Scottish estate, the writing is probably on the wall.”

He added: “We’re a vibrant community and we genuinely have a passion here. There’s a lot of collaborative thinking about the island, so that’s why people are so upset about Ardfin at the moment.”

Claire Fletcher, who runs Ardlussa estate on the north of the island with her husband Andrew, said: “If Ardfin does close for the foreseeable future we’ll see a drop off (in visitors]. It’s difficult. People come in now and buy a Scottish estate and forget that there’s almost this paternalistic role that they play in small communities like this.”

Jura was once home to celebrated author George Orwell, while Prime Minister David Cameron is a regular visitor as his wife Samantha’s stepfather, Viscount Astor, owns a 20,000-acre estate in the centre of the island. The island suffered a blow recently when the direct passenger ferry to the mainland was axed because of spending cuts imposed by Argyll and Bute Council.

The MSP for the area, Mike Russell, said tourism was the island’s lifeblood. “Jura needs as much help as possible to get to critical mass, and everything it loses diminishes from that,” he said.

Other islanders are trying to fill the gap left by the garden’s demise. Georgina Kitching has recently set up a “walkie-talkie cafe” in an attempt to attract more tourists to the area. Tea on the Beach consists of a table with a walkie-talkie and a menu offering tea, coffee and baked goods at Inverlussa Bay, and visitors radio Kitching with their orders.

Hugh Carswell, of Jura Community Council, said: “Any initiative like this is great because it attracts people to the island.”

A spokesperson for Coffey said the gardens at Ardfin House were being renovated. He added: “However, it is Greg’s full intention that once all the renovation works are completed, which is probably going to be at the end of the year, Greg will look to re-open the gardens next year at some point.”