By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Environmental activists are threatening to launch a Judicial Review challenge to the Government and Genting Group over Bimini’s “excessive” development, a well-known QC warning that the island’s “very heart and soul is being ripped out”.
Fred Smith QC, the Callender’s & Co attorney and partner, told Tribune Business that the manner in which Genting’s $150 million hotel and cruise ship dock had been approved “certainly” made the project a candidate for legal challenge in the courts.
Mr Smith, who visited Bimini together with a team from the Save the Bays activist group, said residents were “universally” unhappy about being locked out of the decision-making process on issues that affected their island’s future.
Describing most as “sullen and unimpressed” with the Genting project, the QC said many Biminites were unable to exploit any economic spin-off benefits due to the lack of information made public about the development.
And he added that Bimini’s infrastructure, both physical and social, was simply unprepared for - and could not support - the massive influx of tourists brought to the island from Miami by Genting’s cruise ship.
Describing Bimini as a microcosm of the development challenges faced throughout the Bahamas, Mr Smith told Tribune Business that islanders were also “afraid” the cruise ship visits might stop if Genting every won its major prize – a casino licence in Miami.
Disclosing that he traveled to Bimini with fellow Save the Bays members, attorney Romauld Ferreira; Joseph Darville and Earthcare’s Gail Woon, the Callenders & Co partner said the trip was intended to familiarize the group with Bimini’s challenges.
“Everything that Bimini stands for is being destroyed,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business. The very heart and soul of Bimini is being ripped out by excessive and unplanned development.
“All the issues addressed by Save the Bays are being experienced by Bimini, whose environment, culture and patrimony are being desecrated and served up to foreign developers on the alter of the almighty dollar.”
Asked by this newspaper whether the Genting project was a candidate for legal challenge, Mr Smith replied: “It most certainly is, and the Bimini Blue Coalition are now in discussions with an attorney with a view to mounting a Judicial Review application against the Government and developers.”
Apart from the potential environmental impact caused by the proposed cruise dock’s location, Mr Smith said another key issue was the long-promised Marine Protected Area (MAP) for northern Bimini and the mangroves.
The latter two areas, he added, remained threatened by their potential development for a golf course by Genting and the Capo Group. The latter is the original developer of the Bimini Bay Resort.
The Government, though, has a rather different take on Bimini’s development. In announcing Genting’s $150 million, 350-room hotel, Prime Minister Perry Christie said the project would likely create another 300 jobs – taking the total number of Bahamians employed at Bimini Bay to over 800 come completion.
“For me this is a wonderful opportunity to say yet again the promise of being able to move the Bahamas forward and upward is now being fulfilled,” Mr Christie said then.
“We believe that this development will be a catalyst not just to further development on Bimini, but we see the indications also to the rest of the Bahamas.”
The situation on Bimini again highlights the dilemmas posed when the Government imposes Nassau’s economic growth vision on Family Island communities without their input, as it seeks to rapidly tackle its most pressing social and economic problem – job creation.
This results in local communities where so-called ‘anchor projects’ take place feeling disenfranchised, and raises questions about whether the project will be sustainable.
With its track record and multi-billion dollar capital base, there is little doubt about Genting’s ability to perform what it promises in Bimini, but there are questions as to whether its project – coupled with Bimini Bay Resort’s existing facilities – are out of scale with the island’s population and physical size.
Bimini’s labour force is simply unable to meet the needs of Genting and its Resorts World brand, meaning that most of the jobs will likely go to Nassau and Freeport residents.
Ultimately, the fear of Mr Smith and his Save the Bays colleagues is that the Genting project and the Capo Group’s $250 million Rockwell Island development, will result in Bimini’s character being totally transformed.
As a result, the island could lose the very characteristics that attracted visitors – mostly boaters – to Bimini and made it the Bahamas’ sports fishing capital.
“Universally, the community was aggrieved at central government’s decision to not consult with the locals on decisions affecting their future,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business of the interview feedback Save the Bays received from Biminites.
“This continues to be the lament of every Family Island community, when central government does things without regard for home rule. This is perverse and regrettable, because it does not empower local communities.”
Arguing that neither of the major parties had fulfilled their pledges to empower local government, Mr Smith added: “They prefer to enter into Heads of Agreement with foreign investors, and ‘shock and awe’ local communities with their decisions.”
Describing Genting’s impact on Bimini to date, the QC said: “During the week the casino brings few people to the community and, for the most part, these people sit around the Bimini Bay Resort; not the community.”
While acknowledging that the Miami cruise ship service would potentially bring thousands of tourists to Bimini, Mr Smith said the failure to properly plan and involve locals beforehand meant the island “is not prepared to support such an influx of tourists”.
He implied that Bimini was in danger of becoming what is known in tourism jargon as a ‘honeypot’, where the number of visitors simply overwhelms the local population and supporting infrastructure.
“Waste and garbage was everywhere,” Mr Smith said of Save the Bays’ visit to Bimini. “At small restaurants we visited, we were obliged to sit next to small dumps of garbage. Bimini Blue Coalition complained that the preferred method of disposal is burning at different sites.
“The island could not support all the tourists. Their water supply was exhausted. There aren’t enough bees making honey. The restaurants run out of supplies. Sitting in the restaurants, we were subjected to flies and other creatures. This is growth without planning.”
Mr Smith told Tribune Business that “everyone is perplexed” about the lack of information concerning the location of Genting’s proposed cruise ship jetty.
With no documents, nor an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), on the Genting project made available by either the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) or the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission, Biminites have been left to speculate.
Given Bimini’s position as a fishing and tourism economy, Mr Smith said the likely location – above the Three Sisters coral reefs – was “anathema to the community, and everyone is complaining about being kept in the dark”.
The noted QC suggested there was again evidence that the Government was circumventing local government permitting and approval processes, as no such applications by Genting had ever been published by the Bimini District Council.
And, when contacted by residents seeking information on the project, he said the District Council’s reply was that it had “nothing to report”.
“This is a runaway train, out of control,” Mr Smith told this newspaper. “The Government feels the laws don’t apply to it on regulated development.”
While acknowledging that the arrival of Genting’s cruise ship had created some business for Bimini restaurants and golf cart rentals, Mr Smith said all were holding off on expansion because of a lack of information.
“People are not confident about the future of cruise line visits,” he told Tribune Business. “”They were uncertain about what’s going to happen. In the words of one lady: ‘We ain’t going to change anything.
“They don’t know how long the cruise ship will be there. They are afraid that when Genting gets their casino licence in Miami, the cruise ship will no longer be there.
“This is reflective of the absence of planning, central government imposing its will by anchor projects on local communities, and a complete failure to empower local communities.”
Mr Smith added that Bimini’s mangroves were also being threatened by dredging for fill that is aiding expansion at the northern end of Bimini Bay.