MILLIONAIRE internet tycoon Michael Birch has been hailed as the savior after he revealed plans to restore his ancestral village to its former glory.
True to his word, the 52-year-old former Bebo boss bought out the derelict pub and mansion, soon adding the grocery store, fish and chip shop, a portfolio of historic cottages and a 90-acre farm.
But now, almost eight years later, there are rebellious murmurs among locals that far from saving picturesque Woolsery, West Devon, his vision has divided residents and – as one put it – “made our lives hell.” has”.
Opponents of his “Woolsery Project” claim years of construction have destroyed their tranquility and created a vacant parking lot for contractors.
They say the shop and pub have pushed prices beyond the reach of many, while Michael’s property purchases have driven young families out of the housing market.
According to one resident, the common local joke is that Woolsery – population 1,123 – has become known as “Birchery” or “Bebotown”.
But not everyone shares this view.
The Sun spoke to several locals who insist that, with money tight everywhere, Michael’s wife Xochi’s multi-million dollar investment has ensured the village’s future prosperity.
They point out that the California-based entrepreneur, who sold Facebook competitor Bebo to AOL for £650m in 2008, has held public consultations at the Farmers Arms pub to explain his plans.
He has since appointed his colleague Emily Harmon from San Francisco as on-site project manager.
Retired vicar Shirley Henderson, who attended services at Woolsery’s medieval 12th-century All Hallows Church,th Century Reign of Richard the Lionheart, fears the project has divided the village.
The 73-year-old said: “We have the ‘birch community’, everyone who works for him, and the ‘village community’, which are mainly older residents who have been here for years.
“Emily talks about the importance of community, but you never see her at the main village events.
“There’s this whole thing about how Michael was our Savior, but who is it all for? We live in his vision of community, not ours.
“Our village wasn’t dead before he came. Some buildings had to be sorted, but it’s not the same.
“The Pub is a gentrified vision of a pub that most people can’t afford to frequent.
“People are fed up with the construction work, which seems to have taken forever. I sometimes wonder if the construction workers are laughing.”
On Back Street, which runs next to the store, grandfather John Heath, 75, is certainly not laughing.
He has made his views known by spray-painting graffiti in foot-high letters all over his own shed. The blatant message is: “Birch Out Of Our Lives”.
“Ever since Michael Birch started buying up this village, he’s made our life hell,” John said.
The resident added: “He created a big construction site. Lasting nearly a decade, it has disrupted everything and everyone. That’s why my graffiti stays where it belongs.
“When Birch arrived he was looking to buy and refurbish the Farmers Arms pub which had been closed for two years and the manor house.
“He said he wanted to make sure the locals could go somewhere for a drink.
“That was okay so far. But then he started buying loads of other real estate—the grocery store, the fish and chip shop, a 200-acre farm, and a few cottages in the center of the old village.
“There will also apparently be a wood-smoked pizzeria behind the store.
“On our street alone, Birch has bought several cottages for the staff. They will likely become vacation rentals in the future.
“In the past, these properties were used by youngsters to get up the apartment ladder. But he has thwarted any chance of them buying in the village where they were born and raised.
“As for Farmers, it feels more like the lounge of an elegant hotel than a traditional village pub. Locals go to the social club.
The store is way too expensive for locals. I don’t generally use it, but friends say chickens cost up to £12 each
He added: “People joke about Woolsery becoming Birchery or Bebotown. But the joke is on us if he decides to move on.”
John’s wife Christine said: “The pub needed a new owner and the mansion needed salvaging. But his plans went far beyond that. It divided the village.
“Construction traffic has been excruciating and parking is a nightmare for people arriving to work at its sites. Often the bus doesn’t get through.
“The commercial refrigerators just a few feet from our door are so noisy that we have to keep our windows closed, even on hot summer nights.
“The shop is far too expensive for locals. I don’t generally use it, but friends say chickens can cost up to £12 each.”
Research by Sun suggests that while the shop is more expensive than the nearest supermarket 10 miles away, prices are comparable to other typical Devon village shops.
For example, a two-litre bottle of milk costs £2.10 – around 80p more expensive than Morrison’s.
At Chippie, a portion of fish n’ chips is £12.50, while over at the Farmers Arms, a listed former coaching inn that houses some of David Bowie’s original artwork, a three-course meal costs between £29.50 and £55 per person.
Not all local residents share the critics’ views. Karen Goodman, 73, who moved here from Hampshire five years ago, told us: ‘Yes, the shop is a bit more expensive.
“But that goes for all local convenience stores.
“I do most of my shopping at Aldi, but it’s good to have this one nearby if you need something last minute.
“The staff are always nice. They shop for the elderly and also deliver. People forget that.
“Seeing Woolsery’s Facebook page and some of the negative comments there – it’s unreal.
“I didn’t experience all the disruptions that were going on. But overall Michael Birch was very positive for Woolsery.”
Another resident, who asked not to be named, told us: “What’s not to like.
“At a time when money is tight, Michael has poured a fortune into this place, creating jobs, securing businesses and breathing new life into Woolsery.”
Michael can trace his family roots in the village back to the 17th centuryth Century. His great-great-grandfather Job built the village shop.
He is believed to employ around 65 people, not counting construction workers, more than half of whom live in the village.
David Kitchingham, 68, and his wife Alexandra, 69, moved in with Woolsery 12 years ago – just before the Birch transformation began.
“Woolsery now feels less like a village and more like a company,” said David.
He added: “The construction work has taken forever, but the full impact is yet to come. He clearly wants to attract visitors and vacationers.
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“We’re going to end up as a rural amusement park and I don’t want to be stared at by passing tourists.”
Alexandra said: “Yes, he held public meetings, but these were over very quickly and people soon realized that he was doing a lot more than we all thought.
“If he has so much money, why does he have to earn more on the backs of others?”
A longtime resident, who asked not to be named, said Woolsery was “terribly divided”.
“All his people are working on his Woolsery project,” she said.
They added: “But then there’s the rest of us who have lived here for years and don’t want to be his ‘project’.
“What he originally told us has evolved into something much bigger. He has now bought many properties. No one knows exactly how much or why they need it all.
“There is definitely a lot of resentment in the village.”
The Woolsery project, also known as The Collective At Woolsery, was contacted by The Sun for comment.
https://www.the-sun.com/news/7726569/woolsery-michael-birch-bebo-village/ The US tech millionaire has promised to give our tiny village a £1million makeover… but instead he’s left us with a living NIGHTMARE