By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bimini is in “the worst state it has ever been” despite receiving multi-million dollar investments, Tribune Business was told yesterday, as locals are increasingly squeezed out of entrepreneurial and job opportunities.
Lorrick Roberts, who owns a gold cart rental and tram (transportation) business on the island, said virtually all the contractors and crews working on Genting’s new $150 million hotel, and the airport expansion, were either Mexicans or Dominicans.
And, with a Hotel Corporation-owned company now responsible for all the ground transportation and water sports activities at Bimini Bay, Mr Roberts said he and other local entrepreneurs had received little benefit from the thousands of tourists brought to the island by Genting’s Miami-Bimini ferry service.
“The is the worst state Bimini has been in ever,” Mr Roberts told Tribune Business. “The whole Bahamas believes Bimini is booming, but Biminites are not getting their fair share.
“The Biminites who care are really angry about it, but there is nothing they can do as the Government is not informing the island about what is going on here. There’s not been a Town Meeting here, even before the casino opened.
“The bad thing is that they’re making it look like Bimini is so booming, but Biminites are not feeling it.”
The sheer scale of Genting’s investments in Bimini, coming on top of the existing Bimini Bay project, again highlight the potential conflicts caused by the central government imposing its own economic development/growth vision on Family Island communities from Nassau.
It also raises issues of how involved local communities should be in charting their own development, and shows the dilemma created when job creation pressures result in projects that potentially alter an island’s character - the very thing that attracts tourists in the first place.
Mr Roberts was backed by K P Turnquest, the FNM MP for eastern Grand Bahama, who called on the Christie administration to “demonstrate” its election commitment to ‘putting Bahamians first’.
Suggesting that it would “not be long” before Bimini became known as ‘Genting Island’, Mr Turnquest said locals could soon find themselves becoming “a minority on their own island”.
And the MP confirmed he had “seen with his own eyes” how Mexicans and Dominicans were dominating the workforce responsible for the new hotel and airport construction, plus the building of private homes at the northern end of Bimini.
Recalling his visit to Bimini the weekend before last, Mr Turnquest said he saw between 30-40 Latino construction workers spread between three work sites.
“I saw a bunch of Mexican and Dominicans working away, pouring concrete, tying steel, clearing land - all work Bahamians can do. I didn’t see any Bahamian doing construction.
“Basically, Bahamians are getting knocked out of all the construction in Bimini. On the airport there are Mexicans doing all the ground work and operating the heavy equipment, the land clearing is being done by Mexicans, and as I understand, they haven’t solicited the services of any of the Bahamian contractors.”
He was backed by Mr Roberts, who said the developers gave one contractor - a PLP campaign ‘general’ - a small piece of land to clear after he complained to the Government.
Mr Roberts added that no Biminites had been employed on the recently-completed Bimini Bay casino, the developers again relying on Mexicans and Dominicans, until close to completion deadline.
Some 10 locals, he said, were then hired amid fears that the completion deadline would be missed.
Bimini Bay’s developer, the Miami-based Capo Group, employed numerous Mexican and Dominican construction workers in the past. They likely did this because of the relatively low wages they commanded relative to their Bahamian counterparts.
But, with the Bahamas’ national employment rate pegged at just under 14 per cent, and youth unemployment at over 30 per cent, Mr Turnquest said it was “critical” for the Government to ensure Bahamians participated in, and reaped maximum benefits from, projects such as Genting’s 350-room hotel.
“It’s incumbent on the Government to ensure that everyone who could, and should work, is put to work,” the FNM MP said.
“The Government says it puts Bahamians first, that it’s committed to putting Bahamians first. They should demonstrate it. This is where the rubber hits the road.
“That’s the question to ask in Bimini: Should Bahamians apply?”
Arguing that Bahamians “are available and have the talent to build to the standard that is necessary”, Mr Turnquest added: “The wants of the developer need not trump the national interest.
“We need to do everything we can to ensure Bahamians get the first opportunity,” he said, accusing the Government of “a bit of a double standard” when it came to Bimini.
Mr Roberts, meanwhile, said the Bahamas Hotel Corporation Tourism Services (Bimini), which is being run by former Bimini MP, George Weech, appeared to have gained a lock on the ground transportation business at Bimini Bay to the exclusion of Bahamian entrepreneurs.
Arguing that Bimini was “not getting any” of the business brought in by Genting’s Miami ferry service, Mr Roberts also accused the Hotel Corporation subsidiary of taking over his idea for tram tours.
“I get nothing from the ship coming in because the Hotel Corporation has three trams and three big buses,” Mr Roberts told Tribune Business.
He added that after Biminites complained about the lack of spin-off opportunities from Genting’s presence, one tram started taking “80 out of 1,000 people” through town and back to the beach.
And Mr Roberts said passengers landing at the airport on South Bimini were now being ferried to the private landing destination at Bimini Bay, rather than the dock in Alice Town, further reducing the economic impact for Biminites.