Thursday, Apr 25, 2019

Battle lines

Presumably, the Cabinet of The Bahamas has made its decision on the highly controversial proposal presented by Disney Cruise Line to develop the scenic and treasured Lighthouse Point in South Eleuthera.

The Cabinet met yesterday. Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said at a town hall meeting last week that the decision will be made this week.

The decision has not yet been announced to the public.

Prior to the controversy erupting this year, many Bahamians had never heard about Lighthouse Point.

Many still think it is government land and that the government ought not give the land to Disney for its commercial development.

It is not government land and Disney already has an arrangement with the property’s owner to purchase the 800 acres.

It, however, cannot develop the land without government approvals.

Due to an aggressive social media campaign, many Bahamians now grasp the beauty of Lighthouse Point and its significance to Eleuthera.

Last week, pro-Disney forces worked overtime to make a strong showing at the town hall meeting in Green Castle, Eleuthera.

A flyer that was circulated said the prime minister would attend the meeting where “the development of the economies in Central and South Eleuthera will be discussed.”

Eighty to 85 percent of those who attended, including the moderator, wore pro-Disney T-shirts.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis (center) shares a laugh with Central and South Eleuthera MP Hank Johnson (right) at a town hall meeting in Eleuthera last week. PHOTOS: TORRELL GLINTON

Many arrived in a large motorcade.

Before the prime minister took the microphone, the moderator had several Disney supporters explain why Disney was good for South Eleuthera. He also had two residents who worked for Disney explain what it is like working for Disney.

The prime minister watched the event from the sidelines for at least 30 to 40 minutes and called it a Disney rally, according to our reporter present.

When Minnis spoke, it was immediately clear that he, too, was leaning toward Disney.

He immediately struck a blow at the groups advocating for the government to reject the proposal, by pointing to a 2008 project approved for South Eleuthera “which allowed dredging and multiple canal networks within the same property; dredging of the salt pond into the ocean; creation of marinas for mega yachts and yachts; division of your land”.

Minnis said, “This is what was approved for that property, that some may argue that the land would be destroyed. This project, which was approved, would have caused more destruction than what is being looked at today.”

He also suggested that the government will not be guided in its decision by the views of various environmental and civic interests – or by the 30,000 people who signed a petition against the Disney proposal – but by the views of South Eleuthera residents.

“I am your employee,” the prime minister said at the meeting. “You employ me. You are the employer. I am your servant – whether some may like it or not – it’s the facts, and I come to hear tonight as an employee [to hear] how my employer feels so I can take it back to my colleagues and make a definitive decision by next week.”

During the town hall meeting, many residents angrily dismissed the few brave souls who expressed opposition to the Disney project.

One resident, Father Bradley Miller, said he thought he was coming to a town hall meeting to focus on the economy in Eleuthera and did not realize he was coming to a Disney rally. The crowd strongly booed him.

The scene became nastier and more hostile as the meeting progressed and no strong effort was made to ensure those who were expressing views against the project could be respectfully heard.

The meeting ended with a vote taken on how many residents present support the Disney plan. The vast majority of them raised their hands.

Following the event, there was a Junkanoo rush-out with people clad in pro-Disney T-shirts.

South Eleuthera residents, many of them wearing pro-Disney T-shirts, raise their hands in overwhelming support of the company’s proposed project at Lighthouse Point. The vote was taken in the presence of Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis during a town hall meeting in Green Castle last week. Minnis told the residents a final decision will be made this week. TORRELL GLINTON

Anyone who expected a gathering that would have allowed all sides in the matter to be heard was mistaken.

Many who oppose the Disney development expressed disgust and disappointment at what transpired at that meeting. Much of that outrage was expressed on social media by Bahamians who reside on New Providence and elsewhere.

Some suggested South Eleuthera residents who support the project are ignorant and have sold their souls to Disney. Some even stated that the media – The Nassau Guardian in particular – was on Disney’s payroll for prominently carrying the story from the meeting.

While we understand their concerns about the fate of the land, and while we think it is unfortunate that clear efforts were made to intimidate those who oppose the project, we also understand why so many in South Eleuthera are anxious for the development.

But we believe Disney might not turn out to be the savior many of them envision.

The condescending manner in which some have spoken about the people of South Eleuthera is just as despicable as the lack of respect shown at the town hall meeting for those who oppose the project.

With little hope for much else, many in South Eleuthera are prepared to take their chances with Disney, which says the project will focus on conservation where only 20 percent of the property would be developed and 120 to 150 permanent jobs will be created.

For many years, people who live in the communities of South Eleuthera have seen economic activities slow to a trickle. They have watched their young people leave due to a lack of opportunities.

They are desperate for something to happen. They have been waiting a long time. When he represented the area, Damian Gomez, a PLP, spoke often about his frustrations over the failure of the Christie administration to deliver for Central and South Eleuthera.

Disney claims its project for a cruise port development will cost between $350 million and $400 million.

The company said it has no plans to develop the southern-most area of the property, the Lighthouse Point at the heart of the matter, or allow its guests to visit it.

Minister of Tourism Dionisio D’Aguilar has previously said there is no sitting politician who would allow for any commercial development at Lighthouse Point and its immediate surrounding beaches, but he could not speak to what the government would allow to happen in the wider area.

Disney has committed to preserving the salt ponds on the property and to giving the government 170 acres of the land for conservation.

It has not yet completed an environmental impact assessment.

While D’Aguilar claimed last week Disney would still be interested in finding another site within The Bahamas for a new port if it does not get approval for Lighthouse Point, a Disney official said last month the company looked at two other properties in the country before ultimately deciding on Lighthouse Point.

Disney said there is no plan B for a cruise port elsewhere in The Bahamas.

The flip side

On the other side of this debate are the One Eleuthera Foundation, Bahamas National Trust, reEarth and other groups that argue that the Disney project would have untold negative impacts and would not deliver anything major for Eleuthera communities.

Lighthouse Point Partnership (LPP), which is made up of the Bahamas National Trust, the Leon Levy Foundation, the One Eleuthera Foundation and The Island School, has presented a proposal of its own, saying it would create 190 full-time, year-round jobs, boost the country’s GDP by $11.5 million and preserve the natural environment.

We still do not know how LPP intends to acquire the 800 acres, but it said its preliminary development budget is estimated at $23 million, plus the cost of acquiring the land.

The group says, “We believe our vision is aligned with the long-term vision of the government of The Bahamas for individual islands and island groups of The Bahamas to build permanent and sustainable jobs and economic development upon the history, culture, desires and ambitions of its local communities.”

LPP says it has defined a thoughtfully customized plan for Lighthouse Point that integrates a new national park with complementary eco-tourism to create over 350 meaningful jobs across all acres of the site.

LPP, in a final effort to convince the government to say no to Disney, has thrown out some big names, like the Holowesko family, who owns the charming and successful Island House at Lyford Cay.

They are traditional backers of the Free National Movement. Whether they have any influence in convincing Minnis to dump the Disney deal will be interesting to see.

Minnis and his government are in a tight spot here. But making tough decisions is what governing is all about.

We admit our own initial misgivings about what Disney is proposing. Disney’s EIA must be completed and made public.

It is a reputable company with funding in place. It is a sure project that is ready to go.

If the government is convinced that Disney is able to deliver a sustainable development, then it should negotiate a deal that maximizes benefits for Bahamians.

Environmental protection, beach access for locals and meaningful economic impact all have to be weighed.

But South Eleuthera residents – whose expectations are high – might face some disappointment if their island does not suddenly become the land of milk and honey.

One Eleuthera has done a lot for their communities.

The land in question has sat there for quite some time, though, with no local group making any aggressive effort to present any proposal for the property and none that we know of making any arrangement to purchase it.

If the government accepts Disney’s proposal, we hope LPP’s interest in development for Eleuthera does not fade.

We believe that partnership is still relevant and important in creating more opportunities for Eleutherans.

Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the managing editor for the Nassau Guardian.

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