John O'Groat Journal
A regeneration fund has underwritten £1.4 million in "soft" loans to over 40 small and medium-sized businesses in the Dounreay travel-to-work area since it launched in 2007.
North Highland Regeneration Fund (NHRF), which is bankrolled by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), has helped create or safeguard over 200 jobs in the area, it was revealed at a reception at the Castle of Mey on Monday evening, held to meet business representatives to discuss the support on offer.
The fund offers loans between £5000 and £50,000, as well as offering advice and support to help enterprises realise expansion plans.
NHRF Chairman John Thurso said the fund had been successful in helping businesses reach their potential during a period when loans from banks and other financial assistance have been at a premium.
"I am proud to serve as chairman of the fund and to help support the invaluable work it does in supporting, growing and developing businesses," he said. "Caithness and North Sutherland has a long and proud history of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit and I'm delighted the fund has played a role in supporting so many ambitious companies."
NHRF was set up and funded by the NDA to provide low-cost loans to businesses unable to source funding from conventional lenders.
Director Nigel Lowe said: "The fund was set up to provide real support for businesses and I believe it has more than achieved that aim. Hearing the success stories of some of the previous recipients of fund support was inspirational and we look forward to supporting many more ambitious businesses in the future."
Michael Cohrs, member of court at the Bank of England and a former member of the bank's financial policy committee, was a keynote speaker at the event when he discussed the importance of small and medium-sized enterprises to a balanced economy.
Among the business which have benefited from the fund are Whittles Publishing in Dunbeath; Reid's of Caithness in Thurso; JPL Shellfish in Scrabster; and Highland Bespoke Furniture in Brora.
Thurso Cinema also used funding from NHRF to establish a two-screen cinema in August 2012.
Owner Rob Arthur was unable to convince his former employers about re-establishing a cinema in the far north and found banks unwilling to invest in his venture. But thanks to assistance from the fund, he has been able to expand to open a new bar and kitchen at the Thurso complex, which employs 22 people.
"I was striking out on my own without the support of conventional lenders," said Mr Arthur. "The fact NHRF believed in my vision for the cinema and provided significant moral and financial support to achieve the company goals means a great deal to myself and all the staff at the cinema. The fund provides an invaluable resource for anyone looking to do business in Caithness and north Sutherland."
Dunnet Bay Distillers has also received funding from NHRF to build a distillery in the village. Martin Murray, who set up Rock Rose Gin with his wife Claire, said without assistance from the fund, it could have taken years to get his company up and running.
Mr Murray said the fund gave him the opportunity to move back to his native county and set up a venture which will look to employ up to six people by the end of the year.
"NHRF were highly supportive the whole way through and I felt they really understood what we were trying to achieve," he said. "We wouldn't be at the stage we're at today if it wasn't for the support from NHRF."