INVERNESS Airport Business Park is struggling to get off the ground despite multimillion-pound public investment, it has been claimed.
Only 40 jobs have materialised since the project’s creation in 2005 and loans with Highland Council have not been repaid.
A leading economist has questioned its marketing ability after the joint venture between Moray Estates, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Highlands and Islands Airports recently opted to limit its promotion to a short online video.
A month on, the film promoting its long-held vision of building an airport hotel has attracted barely 300 viewers, despite a glitzy London event hosted by enterprise agency Scottish Development International.
IABP’s chairman has responded, insisting things are "on the up," but city economist Tony Mackay is not impressed.
"There must be something wrong with IABP’s marketing for them to have had such a disappointing performance," he said.
"It’s struggled to attract business since it was first set up. The 40 jobs figure is very disappointing.
"Many other businesses have been attracted to Inverness in the last five years. Other enterprises have been successfully developed, including Inverness Campus.
"A hotel seems a sensible proposal but HIE has also just invited tenders for a hotel on its Inverness Campus. There must be doubts that the market will support two new hotels."
He acknowledged a "phenomenal" year for tourism but attributed much of that to the collapse in the pound – and warned that the bubble could soon burst.
IABP chairman James Campbell said: "Securing the Co-op as our anchor tenant at phase one very much sets the tone for what we’re looking to achieve.
"When combined with excellent transport links and connectivity by air, road and soon to be rail, with the proposed introduction of the Inverness Airport (Dalcross) Station, the business park is very much on the up."
He said interest had been expressed for a hotel development, with three-acre site earmarked beside the airport terminal, and he disputed Mr Mackay’s stance, insisting the case for additional hotel accommodation in Inverness was strong.
HIE has invested £650,000 in the IABP so far, of which £423,000 was loan funding. It has recently approved a further £1 million for site development. It also contributed an amount towards the cost of the link road from the A96.
Since planning permission for the park was granted in 2011, two operators have established a base there – Babcock MCS Onshore (previously Bond Air Services) in 2012 and the Bristow Search and Rescue base in 2015.
The Co-op got approval for a distribution facility in September and construction is under way.
Asked what else is on the horizon, a IABP spokesman stated it was "working on a number of enquiries" and it was "also engaged with development partners to deliver two bespoke design and build facilities for specific occupiers."
Inverness Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stewart Nicol said he considered the business park "vitally important" for the area.
"It’s more slow burn than anybody would want," he said. "It’s one of those projects that’s just taking an awful long time but I’m confident it’s the right thing to do and ultimately believe it will be a success."
Councillors will debate a lingering debt the IABP owes the local authority tomorrow. The council agreed a £1.18 million unsecured loan in 2005.
A council report stated that the IABP "is in a weak financial position and does not have sufficient liquidity in their accounts to make repayment to the council".