Saturday, Dec 14, 2019

Stalled

Plans for a proposed $2.5 billion revitalization of the former Ginn Sur Mer development in Grand Bahama and the promise of 1,400 jobs have stalled with the departure of Skyline Investments, the Toronto-based firm that was originally in negotiations to purchase the Old Bahama Bay hotel and approximately 1,500 acres of land that made up the former Ginn project.

“The Ginn Sur Mer project has not proceeded to date,” said State Minister for Grand Bahama Kwasi Thompson to Perspective in response to our questions about the status of the proposed development.

“We are hopeful that it will still proceed. I am informed that potential buyers are in discussions with the owners.”

On December 7, 2018, Skyline announced it was not going ahead with the purchase of the Old Bahama Bay hotel in Grand Bahama, and that it had succeeded in identifying an alternative buyer, according to its March 2019 Annual Information Form (AIF).

Toronto-based real estate firm Intercap Inc. replaced Skyline late into the negotiations to purchase the property.

A source close to the project told Perspective that government officials had met with and were vetting Intercap’s principals. Calls to Intercap were not returned.

Last November, Skyline disclosed that its controlling shareholders were involved in a dispute, according to its AIF. A resolution to that dispute saw the departure of Skyline Chairman Gil Blutrich. Several months later, in June of this year, Skyline announced the resignation of its CEO, Bruce Riggin.

In its first quarter 2019 financial report, Skyline announced a derecognition of investment costs and other capital losses pegged at CAD $1.4M (US $1.05M) due to “the expiration of an agreement with an unrelated third party to assume the acquisition of The Bahamas project”.

Skyline determined that the remaining costs that were to be reimbursed by that unnamed third party were to be written off in the current quarter, according to the report.

Fanfare then silence

It has been over a year and a half since Skyline’s proposed multibillion-dollar mega development was first heralded to the nation.

In his January 2018 national address, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis announced that Skyline, through its Grand Palm Acquisitions Ltd. vehicle, “will construct, repair, revitalize, develop and operate 246 rooms in three hotels, a banquet facility, 116 branded hotel residences, 1,000 other residences, a hotel/casino site, approximately 150,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, a spa and wellness retreat, two marinas, an 18-hole golf course including driving range, an IFR-rated airport, a resort hospitality training academy and an organic farm”.

A year later, in his January 2019 national address, the prime minister said, “We are making progress on the Bahama Bay resort and residential development, the former Ginn Sur Mer. This development will include: 173 condo-hotel units, a marina and the development of a smart city.”

His 2019 remarks on the project were less grand than that of the previous year, but no mention was made to the nation that Skyline was no longer pursuing plans to purchase the former Ginn property.

Last June, Skyline COO Danny Rothman, together with government representatives, held a town hall meeting in West End to inform residents of the redevelopment plans for the former Ginn project.

Skyline’s then Local Director of Operations Derek Gape spoke to residents in attendance about some of the pressing needs at the property.

“The immediate needs are to fix it the way it was before,” he said, “make the guardhouse beautiful and make it the really grand entry that it once was. All of this will involve a lot of local help and of course will put people to work right away.”

In a conversation with Perspective last week, Gape, who is no longer affiliated with the project, expressed that the disappointment over Skyline’s departure was not limited to West End residents.

“It is disappointing to everyone really because [the purchase] was very, very close to actually being executed,” he noted.

When pressed by Perspective on what occurred with what was announced as heads of agreement negotiations with Skyline, State Minister Thompson forwarded our emailed query to Erica Wells-Cox, director of communications for the office of the prime minister, who advised that she would contact The Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) for information.

After three days of follow-up, we were told that no headway was able to be made with BIA. We suggested to Cox that comment on this matter could best be had from the prime minister. No further update was provided up to press time.

“No more hope, we need action”

West End is the capital of Grand Bahama and was the center of bustling touristic activity for the island many years ago. Major hurricanes have torn a path of destruction through the settlement with a population at last census of just over 4,700, but the winds and floods have over time proven no match for the indomitable spirit of many residents.

West Enders who spoke to Perspective during our visit to the now quaint community where fishing is the primary economic driver, were unanimous in the view that times are very rough, economic activity is depressed and employment opportunities are virtually non-existent, particularly for the youth.

“The hotel is a major disappointment; we don’t need anymore hope; we need action,” said Sherica Smith and her husband Graham, proprietors of Shabo’s Fresh Conch Salad stand, the home of the original pickled conch.

“The community is tired of bringing in investors and making a bunch of promises and then two, three years from now nothing is happening,” Graham Smith added. “Give us the opportunity to make this a place where tourists can come and enjoy the natural Bahamian experience.”

The proprietors, whose resilience shone through their frustration and the humidity that blanketed it, pointed out that promised economic drivers such as tour bus stops, Junkanoo and other cultural festivals for West End have been repeatedly canceled, leaving businesspersons to primarily rely on the patronage of Freeport residents who take the nearly 30-mile drive to the settlement on weekends.

As we spoke to the Smiths, handyman Bradley Vincent came over, encouraging us to locate his 91-year-old father Kenneth for an interview while sharing that the lack of job opportunities had pushed him to become a jack of all trades.

“Right now I do anything I can do because ain’t nothin’ happening,” he said with a smile that beamed with the pride of self-sufficiency. “Anything to make a living.”

A short distance away, three gentlemen and a lady took respite from the sun at a bus stop where 70-year-old lifelong West End resident Harold Newton, nicknamed “Amigo”, schooled his inadvertent audience on the meaning of life.

“We have no real economic movement around here,” he told us, his brow furrowed and his gnarled index finger pointed matter-of-factly as his previously jovial tone turned serious. “The fisheries could be better if we get better equipment. The life living has become degraded.”

When asked if they were made aware of the status of the proposed Ginn redevelopment by Skyline, Amigo asserted, “That is a flop, nothing but mouthpiece talk but no real action. They need to build up this hotel so people can have a real life.”

Karen, seated next to him, then opted to chime in. “Miss, it rough,” she shared. “If you ain’t got your husband or your boyfriend or whatever or your son going out there…like me, I’ve got to wait on my son out there fishing; that’s what helps me pay my bills.

“He’s out there risking his life, but in West End it’s dead; the economy is very terrible.”

In an earlier conversation with Perspective, taxi driver and West End native Leanzo Frith said in his opinion everyone “was waiting on hope” for the Old Bahama Bay expansion to materialize, but that “nobody knows anything yet. We’re waiting to see it happen, tired of talks, waiting to see it happen.”

Down the street from the bus stop where Amigo continued with his words of wisdom, a few men were gathered to pass the time on “chill day” for those who were not out fishing.

While expressing his thankfulness to be employed, Thomas, a young employee of Old Bahama Bay, stressed that the youth of the area need more job opportunities.

“Plenty people are unemployed around here; they need a lot of jobs here,” added Ashton, a young resident who would later become Thomas’ big-talking opponent at backgammon.

After listening in for a while, Higgins, a self-employed resident, insisted that what West End needs is consistency in events and initiatives to stimulate business opportunities.

“If they could get those things going at the hotel that they were talking about, boy I tell you it would be a dream,” he offered, wistfully shaking his head at the possibilities.

To this, Ashton opined, “The only reason there is no crime around here is this ocean God blessed us with,” pointing at the nearby shoreline, seemingly pondering what life would be like were it not for the ability to fish to make ends meet.

“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know.”

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