By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
ONCE of the principals behind the proposed $225 million trade market proposed for Freeport yesterday told Tribune Business they were "very encouraged" by the outcome of meetings with China-based strategic partners, and hoped to engage the new PLP government over a Heads of Agreement for the project shortly.
Ken Hutton, the former Freeport Concrete and John S George chief who is among those spearheading the World Mart buyers emporium/merchant market, said that while the project's principals were "not unhappy" with the results of their meetings in China, numerous details still needed to be pinned down.
"We're very encouraged by the outcome of the trip," Mr Hutton confirmed to Tribune Business. "It was very focused and targeted at strategic partners, and we are not unhappy with the results. But it's still early days.
"Until the 'i's' are dotted and the 't's' are crossed, I cannot really go into too much detail."
Yet sources familiar with developments told Tribune Business that Mr Hutton and the World Mart team accomplished pretty much all their goals for the trip, obtaining all the agreements they were seeking.
This newspaper was told that the financing for the project is now in place, along with the necessary Chinese strategic partners, China-based sales team and all the infrastructure to make World Mart happen.
One of the meetings is thought to have been with World Mart's main contractor, Beijing Construction and Engineering Group, which is understood to be in talks to take an equity stake in the development. Mr Hutton, though, declined to confirm this.
He did add, though, that World Mart had been approved by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) for its Business Licence. "We are working through the lease of the land," Mr Hutton told Tribune Business, these negotiations being with Hutchison Whampoa, as the trade market is seeking a one million square foot site adjacent to the Sea Air Business Park.
Estimating that World Mart would cost $225 million to construct, Mr Hutton said the investors behind it had not been slow in marketing the project.
"We had a group in town last week, Chinese businesspeople in the Bahamas," he added. "We've got another group coming in during the second week in June."
World Mart will have 1,600 stalls that manufacturers from Asia and other regions will use to showcase their products to potential buyers and partners in the Western Hemisphere. With pre-construction prices for these stalls starting at $300,000, Mr Hutton estimated that selling all would raise $480 million.
"I do believe it's going to have a huge economic impact on Grand Bahama," Mr Hutton said of World Mart. "We've had the Business Licence approved by the Port. Now there's a new government, we will be talking to them in the near term with regard to a Heads of Agreement for the project. We're going to be excited to sit down with the new government to move the process forward."
Mr Hutton previously told Tribune Business that World Mart would have an annual $400 million economic impact and create between 6,000-8,000 total jobs, some 3,000-4,000 of those being direct employment.
And he added that the spin-offs for sectors such as the Freeport Container Port and Freeport Harbour Company, Grand Bahama International Airport, the hotel sector, restaurants and other businesses would create "as many or more" jobs - taking World Mart's total employment impact to around 6,000-8,000 jobs.
Describing the proposed development, Mr Hutton told Tribune Business: "It's a merchant market for trade.... Just to give you an idea of the scale, there will be 1,600 stalls, each stall employing a minimum of two Bahamians.
"That's not including the large warehouse, which will create employment for a couple of hundred, that does not include transportation or maintenance staff at the Mart, which will be another 200-300 jobs. [Direct] employment could be anywhere between 3,000-4,000 people."
Noting that Grand Bahama's hotels would have to be open to cater to visiting buyers and merchants, Mr Hutton added: "We've estimated the economic impact to be $400 million a year, just between the hotel rooms, the departure taxes, the hotel room taxes, the spin-off businesses. All those people have to eat.
"This is a game changer for the country, in my opinion. This is trade tourism, which does not exist right now. We have trade shows and conventions. The ancillary employment is going to be as big or bigger."
While construction is still some way off, Mr Hutton said World Mart's investors wanted to break ground by the end of the 2013 first quarter.
The Bahamas Trade Commission's co-chair has already thrown his backing behind the proposed WorldMart project, telling Tribune Business it could "revolutionise" the Bahamian economy and create "astronomical" benefits for local retailers, manufacturers and other entrepreneurs.
Raymond Winder, the Deloitte & Touche (Bahamas) managing director, said the planned one million square foot merchant trade market could help reduce the cost of imported goods for Bahamian retailers through diversifying supply sources via an influx of Chinese and Asian-manufactured goods.
Apart from reducing the Bahamas' heavy reliance on shipping all goods from Florida, Mr Winder said that by leaving inventory in World Mart's bonded Freeport warehouse until it was required, retailers and businesses located in New Providence and elsewhere could boost cash flow and inventory turn - since they would not have to pay the required Customs/import duties until the stock was brought out.
And Mr Winder, who is also the Bahamas' chief negotiator in its bid for full World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership, said World Mart could pave the way for Freeport to become a true regional distribution hub, and also help this nation when it came to dealing with 'Rules of Origin' regimes involved in most trade agreements.