By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The new investment and infrastructure “landscape” in the Bahamas has prompted Sandyport to revive long-held plans for a potential 512-room resort, and seek the right partners and development model.
Garth Buckner, Sandyport Development Company’s president, told Tribune Business that the western New Providence developer was assessing “what the right thing is for today” in terms of its proposed hotel project.
He confirmed that Sandyport had the necessary government approvals for “up to a 512-room hotel” prior to the recession, and the combination of an improving Bahamian and world economy, recent local infrastructure investments and Baha Mar’s proximity has prompted the developer to “revisit” those plans.
Mr Buckner, meanwhile, told Tribune Business that the existing 77-suite Sandyport Beaches Resort had been enjoying “excellent occupancies and revenue per available room (RevPAR)”, with the former currently averaging 77 per cent.
Sandyport’s commercial space was 92 per cent occupied, Mr Buckner disclosed, while its residential rentals market had been boosted by a recent influx of Swiss bankers and hotel executives.
Sandyport, which sold its first lot more than two decades ago in 1991, now has 450 occupied residences, and Mr Buckner said the developers were taking “a hard look” at how to develop 12 acres of unoccupied land into commercial space.
Noting that “strong interest” had been shown in both Sandyport’s resort proposal, and the Bahamas in general, at this week’s ninth Caribbean Hotel & Resort Investment Conference (CHRIS) in Miami, Mr Buckner emphasised that the potential project in its embryonic stages.
“Sandyport has one of the finest undeveloped hotel properties in the region,” he told Tribune Business.
“We have full government approval for up to a 512-room hotel. We’re revisiting the hotel development plans that we had prior to the recession, and we’ve had positive initial conversations. We’re in really early days.”
The commercial/residential development, which lies at the western end of Cable Beach, had “come out of a difficult time doing remarkably well, and it’s time to look to the future”.
Mr Buckner added: “Markets change. Each new upturn in the market cycle will be different from the last.
“We need to look and see what the right thing is for today. That’s what we’re feeling towards now, but we think there’s an opportunity in the market and are looking at it.”
Tribune Business first revealed in 2008-2009 that Sandyport was contemplating a 512-room resort pitched at the ‘three-four star’ level, a property that would fill a mid-market gap in New Providence’s resort market, which is largely pitched at the ‘five star’ high-end level.
Whether that becomes the ultimate model remains to be seen, but Mr Buckner indicated that Baha Mar’s presence - together with an improving US economy, and local investments such as the $409.5 million Lynden Pindling International Airport expansion, Arawak Cay Port and New Providence Road Improvement Project - had prompted the hotel plan’s revival.
“The tourism industry as a whole has improved in the last two years, and with the new development, with Baha Mar, the new airport and port and roads, I think that changes the whole landscape in the Bahamas,” Mr Buckner told Tribune Business.
“We have 12 acres of undeveloped land. Some of its earmarked for resort development, some of it for additional commercial development, office space.
“We’re looking hard right now at the different opportunities for expanding commercial space.”
And, through the recession and its aftermath, Sandyport has hardly sat idle.
“Our existing operation at Sandyport Beaches Resort has remained profitable throughout the recession,” Mr Buckner added. “We’ve invested into upgrading it, and seen excellent quality occupancies and RevPAR.”
The 77-suite resort was ranked fourth on Trip Advisor among Nassau hotels, he said, and “over $1 million” had been invested to-date in a mixture of improvements.
New kitchens and granite counter-tops were among the current renovations, following behind furnishings and flat screen TVs, with suites being rotated out, then back, into the inventory pool once upgrades were completed.
Noting that occupancies at Sandyport Beaches Resort had been running at 77 per cent, Mr Buckner said high RevPAR numbers had been driven by a combination of this and solid average daily room rates (ADRs).
“We’ve been mainly concentrating on commercial, where we’re running at 92 per cent occupancy,” he told Tribune Business of the wider Sandyport development.
“Residential rentals at Sandyport have done very well, driven by an apparent upswing in the number of offshore bankers, particularly Swiss bankers, as well as hotel executives.
“We feel that might lead to the return of the Bahamian investor market as confidence builds.”
Mr Buckner added: “Sandyport has weathered the downturn remarkably well. There was a drop in property prices immediately following the recession, the same as everyone else, but I think the location, the west, is really coming into its own now.
“There’s a critical mass out there now, there’s buzz, and Sandyport is right in the middle of all that.”
Looking at the Bahamian economy’s near-term prospects, Mr Buckner said: “I think the Bahamas has been on the turn for the last two years.
“We’re coming back from a low point, and people have had a difficult time. Many people are still having a difficult time, and that’s not helped by the high cost of doing business for some Bahamian firms.
“I think we need to look at that, but the fact is we have had two pretty good years of respectable GDP growth of close to 3 per cent, and when you look around people are starting to feel that.”
Suggesting that there were enough indications showing the US would continue on its current path of steady growth, Mr Buckner said the Bahamas would reap the benefits, and added: “The signs are all encouraging.”
Khaalis Rolle, minister of state for investments, pledged he and the Government would do everything necessary to bring Sandyport’s proposed hotel to fruition.
“That project has tremendous potential, and there’s tremendous interest in it,” he added. “Things are moving forward, and hopefully we’ll get it done. I’m on the case.”