Trump’s Golf Misadventure in the Scottish Dunes

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump is golfing this weekend at one of his resort businesses, Trump Turnberry, on the west coast of Scotland. About 200 miles to the northeast, on the opposite coast, sits another Trump property that the president has dropped from his U.K. tour.

Maybe he’s bypassing his Trump International Golf Links, near Aberdeen, because of a tight presidential schedule. Maybe it’s more about Turnberry’s legacy glamour, which its northern cousin lacks.

Either way, Trump International is a reminder that Trump still hasn’t fulfilled the grandiose economic-development and job-creation promises he made when he convinced locals to bend environmental rules so he could build a pair of major golf courses in Aberdeenshire.

Trump purchased 1,800 acres of land there in 2005, developed the property from scratch, and then opened it in 2012. His representatives say he has spent as much as $140 million on the project. The Washington Post has reported that Trump probably spent much less: about $12.6 million to buy the property and at least another $50 million to develop it. But Trump International lost about 1.4 million pounds ($1.7 million) on revenue of about 2.63 million pounds ($3.25 million) in 2016, according to corporate filings in the U.K. — and it remains a shadow of the project Trump originally said he would deliver.

Trump received zoning variances to build on environmentally protected sand dunes after promising to invest anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion — and create 6,000 to 7,000 jobs — as part of a golf and tourism mecca in Aberdeenshire.

Yet Trump has invested just a small fraction of that amount, and he’s only created about 93 jobs (though his manager at the course told the BBC last year that “including caddies” would lift the payroll to 150 people). A 450-bed hotel and 1,500 luxury homes that Trump promised never materialized either. (Trump claimed annual income for 2017 of $3.5 million from the course, according to his most recent financial disclosure form.)

Curdling the project further, Trump has repeatedly tried to evict local residents with homes adjacent to his course. All of this has soured Trump’s hosts on the president, and his plans to build a sister course in Aberdeen look like they won’t be approved by the local government.

“Critics argue that Trump is now an ‘international pariah’ with a brand so toxic it can only damage the reputation of Aberdeenshire,” the Herald, a Scottish newspaper, noted recently.

It’s unclear if any of that antipathy will register with the president.

“Aberdeen’s been a tremendous success,” he said in 2014, when the course was also losing money and had yet to host a major tournament. “It’s been judged to be the greatest golf course built since 1960, by many people. It’s one of the great courses of the world. It’s very, very successful. It’s doing record business. And it’s been great for Aberdeen. The people in Aberdeen love me.”

Stand atop any tee at Trump International and you see what attracted the president. At his core, Trump is a builder, not a dealmaker, and the windswept, Seussian landscape in Aberdeen gave him and his designer a chance to build on an epic scale. They succeeded. Trump International is a classic “links” course (treeless), embroidered with sand dunes and featuring a number of tees on elevated sand hills that peer down on winding, valley-like fairways. Playing at more than 7,400 yards and with 110 separate tee boxes, it’s groomed to challenge the hardiest golfer.

Trump’s Golf Misadventure in the Scottish Dunes

A Scottish golf photographer introduced Trump to the location — the site of an old estate — in 2005. After visiting it and buying up the land, Trump was hooked. He announced plans for his course, along with luxury homes and a hotel, in 2006. But environmentalists and local residents concerned about the course’s impact on the spectacular sand dunes in the area opposed him.

After Aberdeen’s local government narrowly voted down the project in 2007, Scotland’s first minister at the time, Alex Salmond, intervened on Trump’s behalf and invoked his national authority to overturn that decision the following year. The logic for approving the deal, Salmond’s government said, was that the bounteous economic development that would follow in Trump’s wake would outweigh any environmental damage that might come with it. (The North Sea oil boom that had fueled Aberdeen’s revival was stuttering, and placing bets on tourism seemed like a nifty way to diversify the economy.)

A prominent plaque near the clubhouse memorializes the Trumpian view of his links. It notes that the course encompasses “the world’s largest sand dunes” (it doesn’t — those are in Namibia) and that it is “according to many, the greatest golf course anywhere in the world!” (That’s also not true.)

Trump’s son Eric said in a recent interview with the Washington Post that his family made all of this happen in Aberdeenshire by deploying piles of its own cash — a curious switch from the Trump Organization’s longstanding preference for debt-driven deals using other people’s money.

It’s also a little perplexing from a business perspective why Trump felt the need to build a high-end, luxury golf resort in Aberdeen. There were already a handful of well-regarded clubs in the area, including Royal Aberdeen (opened in 1780 and one of the world’s oldest courses) and Murcar Links (opened in 1909), that were considered fetching alternatives to Trump International.

While Aberdeenshire is a lovely part of the world, it isn’t necessarily where dozens of millionaires would want to plunk down money for seaside mansions, either. The area is charming because it’s relatively untamed and inaccessible, and residents, down-to-earth and welcoming, aren’t golf snobs. When Trump opened his course with green fees of about $325 a round, many local golfers balked.

Yet before the course was even completed, Trump jumped into a series of pointless brawls with the locals. Most notably, Trump tried to buy out a fisherman, Michael Forbes, who declined the offer. Trump said Forbes was residing in a “pigsty” that marred views from his course. So he cut off the water supply to Forbes and his extended family to compel them to move. Most Scots, who haven’t forgotten centuries of land expropriation by hereditary aristocrats, inevitably took Forbes and his neighbors’ sides.

Trump had already scored a coup when he won the right to build the course and could have furthered his goals by simply making nice with his new neighbors. But he kept after the residents (echoing efforts he made decades ago in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to oust a woman whose boardinghouse stood near one of his casinos), and he was eventually savaged in a pair of locally produced documentaries about the standoff. When Forbes won a “Top Scot” award a few months after Trump’s course opened in 2012, Trump took to Twitter to insult the fisherman again.

Trump’s Golf Misadventure in the Scottish Dunes

Today, the Forbes home still stands where it has always stood. When Trump visited Scotland during the 2016 presidential campaign, Forbes and a neighbor, David Milne, hoisted Mexican flags on their properties in what Milne described as “a show of solidarity with the Mexican people and everyone else that Trump has derided, insulted and intimidated.”

Trump also picked a fight with Scotland’s government over an offshore wind farm that the country planned to build near the golf course as a clean energy alternative. Trump thought the farm’s tall white windmills, like the Forbes home, would blemish his sightlines. The windmills “look very bad,” “kill all the birds” and are “ancient technology,” he allowed in a 2011 interview about his Aberdeen course.

“I’m an environmentalist,” Trump also said in the same interview. “I’ve won many awards for the environment and from the environment and what I’ve done to enhance the environment.”

Trump, who has actually never won any awards for or from the environment, formally filed a document noting his opposition to the windfarm that same year. Two years later, in 2013, he sued to stop the project completely. He lost the case in 2015 and Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, mocked Trump last week for trying to kill the project.

“You might have heard of these turbines because a famous golf course owner from America who, I think, has now turned his hand to politics, decided to take the Scottish government to court to try to block these wind turbines because he thought they spoiled the view from his new golf course,” she said at a technology conference. “Just earlier this week, in fact, these amazing wind turbines generated their first electricity. They are marvels of engineering, but, even more importantly than that, very soon they will be generating enough electricity for almost three-quarters of all homes in the city of Aberdeen.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s Aberdeen course continues to lose money and has yet to catch on with legions of golfers. Most of the jobs and investment Trump promised have failed to materialize. A Scottish regulator is reviewing the course for potential environmental damage it may have visited upon the sand dunes.

Even Alex Salmond has become a Trump critic. In an interview late last year with the BBC, he said that Trump had essentially hoodwinked him about his plans in Aberdeenshire.

“I found it difficult to believe that somebody could be so brazenly certain of an investment plan at a public local inquiry and then make very little attempt to bring it home,” Salmond said.

For their part, Trump executives in Scotland say that they fully intend to turn the Aberdeen around.

"Trump wouldn’t come into Balmedie, and Aberdeenshire and Scotland to make a fast buck, come on," said Sarah Malone, a Trump Organization executive, in an interview with the BBC last year.

But some of the locals are skeptical.

“Their actions suggest they have no intention of building the rest of the golf resort,” said Martin Ford, an Aberdeen legislator who cast the deciding vote against Trump’s project in 2007, in a recent interview with me in his office.

For his part, Trump claimed in 2014 to be so put off by his Aberdeen experience that he would focus all of his “investment and energy” instead on a new course he was developing in Ireland. That distaste for Scotland didn’t last long. Two months later he bought Turnberry.

Controversies aside, Trump is embracing a troubled pastime. Many golf course operators have been pulling back from the business and scores of courses have been closing yearly in the U.S.

His golf ventures also expose him, as president, to myriad conflict-of-interest problems that he’s left unresolved.

As McClatchy has reported, a construction company partially owned by the Saudi and South Korean governments has the contract to build a luxury resort in Indonesia that will feature a Trump-branded golf course.

A deal like that flies in the face of the Trump family’s promises, memorialized in a conflict-of-interest plan they unveiled in early 2017, to avoid pursuing business partnerships with foreign governments after Trump became president.

Bali’s government, as part of a deal involving a second Trump project in Indonesia, is building a toll road that will reduce travel time between the local airport and a Trump-branded hotel and golf project there. A state-owned Indonesian firm is also building a new toll road at Trump’s other Indonesian golf development.

In Dubai, the Trump Organization has hired a construction company owned by the Chinese government to work on one of the family’s golf projects there — also breaching the Trump family’s promise to avoid partnerships overseas that involve state-owned entities.

Back in Scotland, at least one of the Trumps did try to show Aberdeenshire some love. After appearing on Fox News on Tuesday to extol the virtues of his father’s relentless attacks on the NATO alliance, Eric Trump hopped on the Trump Organization jet and zipped off to Trump International to visit what he called one of the “best golf courses in Scotland.”

On the ground in Aberdeenshire on Thursday, Trump fils told local reporters that his family had an abiding connection to the land where the president’s mother — an immigrant to the U.S. — was born.

“We just love this country,” he said. “We love the U.K. in general and it’s a big part of our lives. It’s a big part of his life, pre-politics, and that can only be a positive.”

Second of two columns about Trump’s golf courses in Scotland. Read the first column  here.

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