THE Duchess of Northumberland will step down from managing her multi-million pound Alnwick Garden project to pursue a new book, skincare and clothing deal.
Her departure in 2015 – when she expects the two decade-long development to be finished – will see the visitor attraction turned into a franchise run by an outside management company.
The announcement comes as she embarks on a final £15m fundraising push to complete the garden by installing a children’s play park and lighting scheme.
Speaking exclusively to The Journal, the Duchess said after a decade of management struggles she is now ready to hand over the reigns.
“I think for us the way forward is going to be franchising,” she said. “When I first began this project I thought the most difficult part was going to be raising the money and building it and keeping a design team together who all wanted to pull the project their own way.
“But it’s not. The most difficult thing is handing over what you’ve got to management and saying ‘Now make this work’. If you have a manager who doesn’t deliver in whatever field then they’re blowing your profit that you can put back into charitable programmes and I’ve watched that in the past 10 years within the garden business.
“It’s such a specialised skill set, but I will hand over whatever I build now to outside operators.”
The Duchess has been at the helm of one of the country’s most controversial visitor attractions for 17 years.
Her contemporary transformation of Alnwick Castle’s 18th Century walled gardens, part of her husband Ralph Percy the Duke of Northumberland’s estate, has so far cost £42m and come in for staunch criticism from the gardening world’s traditionalists.
Around £16m of public funds poured into the project despite her husband’s vast wealth and that has also brought negative publicity.
However, since it opened in 2001 the garden has brought in £50m a year to the North East, created 300 jobs and various charitable and educational projects.
The Duchess, 53, said: “I have decided I am going to have finished the Alnwick Garden by May 2015. I just think that will have been a big part of my life. I have to set a date to finish it.”
To help pay for the final phase, which includes the world’s largest child-generated play area, she is launching her own ‘Deadly Jane’ skin-care range, clothing line and a series of books including more titles in the successful Poison Diaries series in 2013.
Consultancy work on visitor attractions in the USA and Abu Dhabi is also in the pipeline and by 2015 the Duchess will be working on all her new business ventures full time.
A portion of her profits from all her new projects will be poured back into the garden and she will still have a say on its development.
“I thought a really cool bit of the story would be to make a significant donation to the Alnwick Garden myself,” she said.
“Very few people who build something on this scale with a mixture of private funding and public funding then go out and add the money themselves. So that’s my aim to see if I can do this.
“The difficult thing is finding the right person to hand it over to,” said the Duchess, who turned her attention to creating the garden after having her four children.
“I can’t spend the rest of my life passing by ice-cream stands and being annoyed because there’s a wrapper on the floor or because it’s shut or because the Pimms stand isn’t up or because it’s a hot day and nobody’s thought of putting a barbecue up. I want to take myself out of that.
“I want to find a really great franchise – commercial animals who can pay us a rent. That’s going to be difficult, but it is an employer’s market.”
She is now in the final stages of designing the play area with German specialists, which will cost around £6m.
Built next to the garden’s impressive tree-house, it will include 60ft rope walks completely accessible for disabled children and adults. The first phase of an extensive night-time lighting project called Sparkle, paid for by a US trustee, will launch on Saturday, November 24.