By KHRISNA VIRGIL
Tribune Staff Reporter
WHILE the Christie administration approved the sale of the British Colonial Hilton, it had no hand in selecting China State Construction Engineering Corporation to purchase the historic hotel and its adjoining property, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe said yesterday.
This first public defence of the reported multi-million dollar deal, which has triggered a wave of criticism, came as PLP Party Chairman Bradley Roberts blasted naysayers in the FNM for hitting out against the deal.
“The government had no responsibility for the sale of the Hilton,” Mr Wilchcombe told The Tribune. “The government had to approve the sale from one group to the other but the truth is it did not sit (with the government).
“I think Bahamians might be concerned that it was sitting in the hands of the government. The fact is no, it was not a government owned property. I think that might have been the misconception of what was taking place here.
“It was negotiated between the two entities,” the minister added. “Other companies had put in their bids as well but it was the owners who made the final decision and we had nothing to do with that at all. Except for we had to approve it at the end of the day and the government sees no difficulty with it. I see no difficulty with it.”
When asked if he could place a dollar value on the Hilton’s selling price, Mr Wilchcombe said he was told that CSCEC agreed to pay Hilton owners somewhere between $60m to $100m.
However he added: “We don’t get into the details at times but I know they (CSCEC) are going to spend almost $700m (regarding the country’s GDP).”
According to Mr Wilchcombe, it was during a previous administration that the hotel was first sold. Mr Wilchcombe said a deal of this magnitude had been imminent for years.
The sale of the Hilton was formally announced on Friday evening. It has attracted criticism from some who feel it will give China a larger stake in the local economy. The CSCEC is currently building the $3.5 billion Baha Mar resort and has a $150m equity stake in that project.
In response to the critiques, Mr Wilchcombe said foreign direct investment on Bay Street was an important part in the transformation of the tourist hub which he said has not been successful in capturing the complete interest of visitors.
“The historical value of the Hilton and what it represents is precisely why some of the major hotel owners and brands would want to have it,” he said. “Baha Mar is going to be a tremendous draw in the western region of the island with the major brands they have then there and we have Paradise Island and Atlantis that have been attracting visitors for years.
“But what’s missing in our development? It’s Bay Street. Bay Street is our welcome mat. We have to get Bay Street back to what it used to be. That’s where the seat of power is so Bay Street must become that iconic place. It’s lost the appeal and we have to get the appeal back.”
CSCEC is expected to begin development on the project early next year. Mr Wilchcombe said in addition to the multi-million dollar deal, he plans to seek approval from the government to expand its incentive programme to get Bahamians more involved with downtown Nassau’s development.
Meanwhile, Mr Roberts responded to FNM Chairman Darron Cash and East Grand Bahama MP Peter Turnquest who on Sunday raised concerns about the sale.
Mr Roberts said in a press statement that it was a previous FNM administration who formed initial ties with the Chinese.
Mr Roberts said: “Did these men just wake up from their ‘red Kool-Aid induced Rip Van Winklesque cryogenic slumber’ and are merely talking out of their heads? Or maybe they were and are still just zombies. Those could be the only sensible explanations for their senseless banter and political posturing in the media.
“I strongly advise these gentlemen to wake up to the realities of the real world and come out of their cocoon. Our strongest diplomatic ally and trading partner, the United States, owes China more than $1.3 trillion. China is the largest foreign holder of US debt.”
He accused the previous FNM administration of neglecting Bay Street, an important and strategic component of the country’s overall tourism product offerings.
Mr Roberts added that the Christie administration is moving forward by turning its attention to the revitalisation of Bay Street and the redevelopment of the northern water front of New Providence.