‘When you invite guests do you not give them the best room in the home?’
Emma Deighan speaks to Minka Boyd, one half of the couple behind the North Coast’s controversial Dunluce Resort and Spa plan
Minka Boyd, the Texan-born real estate agent behind the North Coast's newest accommodation proposal, says of the ambitious scheme: "It will be pretty phenomenal."
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If it gets planning permission, Dunluce Resort in Portrush will be a mammoth £65m hotel and spa, with 115 hotel rooms, 14 duplex apartments across four floors, 48 apartments and three detached villas.
But the proposal has attracted around 400 objections from residents groups, who are protesting at the scale of the project and its location.
Minka (47) had been running her own business in commercial property, enjoying the boom in property sales until the recession hit in 2008. She describes the downturn as "the making of me", but it was while on a career break as a missionary to Northern Ireland that she met her Kilrea-born husband, Gavin Boyd.
Together they set their sights on a hospitality project in Co Antrim.
"My mum was ill and I spent time looking after her. She was a missionary who travelled abroad and she was to come to Northern Ireland but was unable to go and decided at the last minute that I should take her place," says Minka.
"It was the best trip of my entire life.
"I stayed in people's houses, not hotels, and met and connected with communities. I realised that Northern Ireland had preserved a community life that I'd never experienced before. It's so refreshing and I describe it as if you've drank muddy water all of your life and then you have a drink of clean, cold water. I loved it."
And after meeting Gavin on that trip, they both moved back to Texas to continue working. The pair then returned to Northern Ireland three years ago when they began looking for land to develop. They chose the North Coast.
It was the right time for the couple to venture into the world of hospitality. The tourism boom in NI was showing massive potential and the North Coast's need for more hotel space to cater to the influx of tourists was becoming increasingly obvious, says Minka.
"I heard at the time that it would be great to develop a resort that would bring Americans here and it was something I was really excited about," she says. "I felt like, gosh, the Americans really need to know this experience that I was having and I wanted to share that."
The site would also feature a three-storey reception area complete with a three-storey fireplace, a "world class spa", a Gatsby-style wedding venue "unlike anything we've ever seen before", a roof-top bar, a hidden bar and a traditional pub.
The site would offer views of the Giant's Causeway to the right and Donegal to the left, all viewed from a cliff edge overlooking Royal Portrush Golf Club.
All of Minka's projects, apart from Dunluce, are based in Texas. She says they include concepts that can revitalise small towns and inject a community ethos.
And its website's homepage champions what is the firm's first move into the hotel sector. It reads: "ARC's newest venture, The Dunluce Resort and Spa, will be located on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, the Causeway, and it will capitalize on the emerging growth of tourism in Northern Ireland and provide local employment to many."
The lure of potential custom from the Open golf tournament in 2019, the draw of the award-winning Causeway Coast for tourism and the prestigious Royal Portrush Golf Club, were also instrumental in deciding upon the Dunluce Road location for their first NI project.
"There have been three reports done by professional groups on the area and everyone is pointing, including the Government, that you guys have a destination here that is under-utilised and doesn't have the accommodation needed," says Minka.
"Tourists are coming to the area and not staying, and spending their money there, and now, after a period of stability and peace, people are waking up to what's on offer. Even my attorney in the States said he turned on the TV and watched a show about homes on the North Coast and he said 'I get it now'.
"There is an opportunity here to bring in more Americans."
While interest surrounds the Dunluce project, it has drawn concern from residents and businesses, and a community group, Future North Coast, has been set up to object to the scheme.
Around 400 objections were lodged with Causeway Coast and Glens Council. And Minka says she has also addressed concerns from the project's neighbour, Royal Portrush Golf Club, which recently expressed worries over the "design, siting and visual impact" of the scheme.
"We know it's near and dear to the heart of people in Northern Ireland," says Minka, when discussing some of the backlash to come off the project's planning application.
"You don't build something this size and not expect an amount of interest and potentially concern."
Minka says the hotel will be built sensitively to ensure as little visual disruption as possible to the area.
"It will have a lot of natural elements including basalt and sandstone, and we will blend in as much as we can," she says.
"We are lucky that the landscape has a cliff wall so when you're driving down the Coastal Route you won't be able to see the project. It won't be a bird's eye view, it will be diminished because of where it's sitting."
She says some images of the building against a coastal backdrop which have been circulated don't "accurately represent" the reality of the project.
She adds: "There have been some things that are not representational of the project and we're in the process of getting more information out there to roll out more visibility.
"People have been tempted to fill in the gaps with their own images and I hope that having conversations like this will help."
Ultimately, Minka and her husband want to create a "jewel in the crown" for the area, she says.
They want to bring economic benefits to the North Coast and help attract high-profile competitions to the area time and time again.
And their choice of location, although controversial given the relatively unspoilt surroundings, offers the best part of NI to tourists, Minka believes.
"If you're going to invite guests into the home, do you not give them the best room in the house? That's what we want to do for the area. We want to connect with the community and set a new standard," she says.
"The resort is expected to have an £11m impact.
"Invest NI did a study to show that the Open has a £90m economic impact and three of those events were originally agreed.
"There was an accommodation requirement and now that's being addressed the competition could come here for a further three events and I think it would be great to be part of that," says Minka.
Currently awaiting planning permission, which Minka hopes will be announced soon, Dunluce Resort and Spa could be on site for May.
"Our vision is to open in time for the 2019 Open but this project is bigger than the Open. It will bring much more to the area.
"We will be opening up the door to conferences and events there too."
Around 250 jobs are expected to be created during the construction process of the hotel, while a further 300 full and part-time positions will be created at the operational side.
And a head chef for the a la carte restaurant has already been head-hunted. Minka says he is "well known" but won't yet reveal his name.
"We are opening up a segment that doesn't exist in the North Coast. It's five star spec and it will be pretty amazing, like nothing you've seen before. We are going way out," she adds.
While awaiting planning approval, Minka and Gavin will share their time between Northern Ireland and Texas where their other business interests lie. However, their main focus will be Dunluce.
"We do have our company in Texas and we are working on concepts to revitalise small towns there, but this is home even though we go back and forth, we hope to get other opportunities here. I think the economy is going to boom," Minka says.
The couple have chosen Kilrea as their hometown to raise their four-year-old son, Saxon Michael.
"In Texas I didn't have any family to help out with my son, but now I have about 10 people I can call upon to help out. There is a real preservation of community here and I want to share that. I want all of America to see what is on offer here," adds Minka.
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Relationships and people are key, take care of relationships and the bottom line will take care of itself. This truth was never made more clear than living through steering a company that endured the recession. Building roots in your relationships help you endure when it matters most.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Find something you are passionate about and pursue it. There will always be challenges to face, it’s passion which fuels you in the tough times.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Marrying Gavin Boyd. Our best business ideas have come from us being together. He’s been the best business partner I’ve ever had.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. I have a teaching degree and started off wanting to be a kindergarten teacher. I think I would go back and work with kids and help inspire young people to greatness.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Madrid in January — Gavin surprised me with the trip as a Christmas gift. I’d like to go to Malta, it was a place my mum had planned to visit before her illness.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Being a mom and working on this project full time (and across two time zones with our business in Texas), I don’t get a lot of spare time, but I have a personal trainer for my sanity. Being on this side of the pond now, I really hope to enjoy more European travel.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Gavin is a Manchester United season ticket holder, so I’ve learnt a lot about soccer since we’ve been together. I still have a soft spot for Tom Landry of the Dallas Cowboys and keep an eye on the NFL.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. I played every sport in every season when I was in high school — basketball, track and field and softball. I was also a cheerleader for a while — how cliched.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. The Shack by Wm Paul Young (I read the book before the movie!). It’s a spiritual one that has really resonated with me.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Really ordinary. I grew up in a small town in Texas with my mom who stayed home, my dad who worked hard and my younger brother. Like most small-towners, as soon as I could I was drawn to the city but I’m still a small-town girl and maybe that’s why I’m so at ease in the Northern Ireland countryside.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. I predict that the Northern Ireland economy is going to do really well, if people make the right decisions to allow the opportunities to open up. I really believe this place has something special and far more to gain in these peacetimes.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company, Arc Investing?
A. As the most inspiring and exciting times in my life. ARC’s vision is one that is worth getting up for everyday. We participate in opportunities that open doors for people and communities in impactful ways. With this as the foundation of our company we’ve been blessed with the joy of working with some very quality people while developing some of the most inspiring projects I’ve ever gotten to participate in.