Thursday, Jun 21, 2018

Vindicated

Satisfaction for Christie as Baha Mar fully opens
Former Prime Minister Perry Christie (left) with Baha Mar President Graeme Davis at the opening of Rosewood at Baha Mar last night. TORRELL GLINTON

Former Prime Minister Perry Christie feels vindicated by Baha Mar’s full opening, and by the fact that various organizations that monitor economic development in The Bahamas are pointing to the Cable Beach property as a key reason for growing economic momentum.

Baha Mar has come a very long way since Sarkis Izmirlian, the project’s original developer, filed for bankruptcy on June 29, 2015, sending the multibillion-dollar project into a tailspin.

“I feel very, very, very vindicated,” Christie told National Review ahead of the opening of the Rosewood hotel yesterday.

“I spent long nights, many, many hours into the night with my office staff, [special advisor Sir Baltron Bethel and Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson] in my office talking to the [Export-Import Bank of China], the leadership of the bank, and reams and reams of discussion on this, that and the other; countless hours of doing that.

“…At one stage, and people don’t know this, I actually told my delegation [to walk out] and we walked out of the negotiations.

“It was just something that I put my life into because I knew that this could only work if I was able to successfully break this off in a way that would be in the best interest of our country, and I did it.”

“…The vindication for me is that every Bahamian contractor left happy. Every Bahamian employee was left happy.

“Notwithstanding the implications of the bankruptcy, we were able to negotiate successfully.”

The bankruptcy led to a protracted period of uncertainty for the Bahamian economy.

More than 2,000 workers eventually lost their jobs and contractors feared they would not get paid the millions of dollars owed.

There was also a nasty public row between Izmirlian and the Christie administration, a high-drama legal battle and deep political fallout for the government as it sought over the course of many months to get the project back on track.

“Baha Mar was more than just a source of employment,” Christie told National Review.

“It was going to [be] an anchor to the economy…and so, I can tell you that never in my 43 years in public life have I had more pressure on me because I had worked closely with Mr. Izmirlian, I worked closely with the China Export-Import Bank.

“My team worked closely with the construction company (China Construction America) as well, trying to get this started again.

“We then worked very closely with the [Chinese] ambassador and high-ranking representatives of the government of the People’s Republic of China using every possible access that we could towards making this happen.

“And so yes, throughout all the vitriolic, condemnatory political criticisms we had to persevere because we knew how important it was to the economy of The Bahamas, and for me it is a tremendous feeling that I did something good and the team did something good for the country.”

‘Fake opening’

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported this month that the national economy grew by 1.3 percent. It pointed to Baha Mar’s phased opening as a major factor in the economy “turning the corner”.

Christie told us, “At all material times I was very much aware of the potential impact of Baha Mar on the economy of The Bahamas.”

In December 2016, Christie, then prime minister, announced to the country that Baha Mar was sold to CTF BM Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Hong Kong conglomerate Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE).

At the time, he said the executed sale and purchase agreement represented a “significant achievement for The Bahamas, and a milestone in the troubled history of the Baha Mar resort”.

Reflecting on the road to getting Baha Mar open, Christie told National Review in an interview on Monday night: “We took pains to make sure that everything was right. I was deeply concerned, firstly, about who we would select, so we went through with the bank any number of would-be applicants, which included combinations of people like Kerzner as well, trying to find the right operator.

“We wanted to ensure that we found an operator that the bank was satisfied with, that the government could be satisfied with.

“We then decided we had to investigate them and we brought in a team from South Africa and Las Vegas, United States, to do an exhaustive investigation, both as to financial capacity and as to historical integrity in corporate operations.

“And so, we were very, very satisfied with CTF…I am very satisfied that we modernized our gaming laws.

“I put them through an exhaustive test, not just from an integrity point of view, but also from capacity to run a casino where they had not run one before, and through it all, I became very satisfied that we had the right operator in place with the right amount of resources in place.”

By the time Prime Minister Christie announced the sale in late 2016, we were five months away from a general election.

His administration was clearly already in big trouble.

The Free National Movement, in opposition at the time, was successful in fueling the narrative that the Christie administration was rushing the Baha Mar opening in a bid to win the election.

Two months before the election, FNM Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis pledged that if the FNM won the election, it would execute a “real sale of Baha Mar”.

The then government’s decision to keep the deal secret, fueled speculation that Baha Mar had been given significant concessions that would have angered the people.

There was also a narrative spun by the then opposition party, and Izmirlian himself, that the Christie administration was acting to benefit Chinese “allies”.

Many Bahamians felt deceived, notwithstanding the Christie administration hailing the sale as a major accomplishment.

When Baha Mar opened its first hotel – the Grand Hyatt – in April 2017 – the then opposition called it a “fake opening” and boycotted the event.

The ribbon cutting ceremony for the soft opening of the Baha Mar resort on Cable Beach in April 2017. From left are China Construction America President and Chairman Ning Yuan, then Prime Minister Perry Christie, Baha Mar President Graeme Davis and Governor General Dame Marguerite Pindling. FILE

Six months later, Prime Minister Minnis and Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar (who had been a director of Sarkis Izmirlian’s Baha Mar) participated in the opening of SLS – Baha Mar’s second hotel – and hailed the success of the development and its importance to economic revitalization.

“I am happy that we found CTF,” Christie said, as he reflected on Monday.

“I am happy that the bank agreed to it. I believe that we have world class operators on Paradise Island and world class operators at Baha Mar. They have demonstrated that, so I am happy that we are headed in the right direction.

“The fact that they’ve hired several thousand people already augers well for the economy of The Bahamas.”

Minnis and D’Aguilar have also expressed satisfaction in the Baha Mar owners since the FNM came to office.

With the election noise well behind them and the realities of governing in front of them, they quickly recognized and acknowledged the importance of Baha Mar succeeding.

They no longer seek to demonize the Chinese and their various investments in The Bahamas.

There is no longer any talk of executing a “real sale” of Baha Mar “to a qualified and respectable purchaser who believes in Bahamians”.

Regrets?

Given that we also had our own suspicions about the Christie administration’s decision not to make the deal to open Baha Mar public, and given that the suspicions of the wider public on the “secret deal” likely contributed to the election loss, we asked Christie whether he had any regrets in how he and his team handled the matter.

He did not address that directly, but said his big regret was that Izmirlian filed for bankruptcy on the same day there was finally a breakthrough with the bank in reaching an amicable agreement to get beyond the challenges that were being faced by the developer and the contractor.

“Mr. Izmirlian asked me to personally negotiate with China Export-Import Bank, and when I was doing so with the vice president, he came back to me and said the president would be a better person to negotiate with, and I personally negotiated, and I thought when I had reached a final outcome was the very day that he told me that he filed for chapter 11 in Delaware, and so there is the regret that the country has had that experience,” Christie said.

He said he and his government benefitted from the very best legal advice from the government’s lawyers in London and Washington.

The Minnis administration has access to that legal advice, and uses the same lawyers, Christie noted.

“They are able to say today, ‘well done thy good and faithful servant’ with respect to the work that we did on this because at the end of the day, Baha Mar is going to be a bright shining star for the economy of The Bahamas.

“It’s going to be even stronger and better than projected right now in terms of what they are going to do, and I think the country will be much better off as a result of it.”

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