By AVA TURNQUEST
Tribune Chief Reporter
TOURISM Minister Obie Wilchcombe yesterday called for the government to suspend its winding up petition and focus on its role as a mediator in the stalled Baha Mar negotiations.
Mr Wilchcombe said the biggest losers in the protracted legal fight over the $3.5bn mega resort are the Bahamian people as he predicted that court rulings in both the Bahamas and US courts would be followed by lengthy appeals. He suggested that if liquidators are appointed to oversee the resort, it would lead to an “uphill battle” for the government.
Pointing out that both the Bahamas and Chinese governments held the “trump cards,” he insisted that it was never too late to rebuild broken relationships and salvage goodwill if all sides made good on declarations that they were committed to opening the resort.
Mr Wilchcombe said: “Of course the government has made the decision to proceed as such, and we take direction from legal quarters – that notwithstanding, it doesn’t mean the players in the game can’t sit and talk. Maybe I’m ignorant, but the bigger thing for me is getting the matter resolved, and in my view that’s bigger than the wrangling that’s taking place and all the brilliance of law.”
“Yes, they began in the court,” he said. “I agree it shouldn’t be dealt with in a Delaware court and that it was important to bring the matters to our soil. But having done that, it’s time to get the players back at the table.
“Faced with the circumstances, some other decisions have to be made, but I feel that all that requires is two sides asking for an adjournment. We can have the sides withdraw or get a suspension, sit down and talk.”
“Something is wrong at the table when you have the developer sitting at the outskirts, you have China Construction America continuing their investments in the Bahamas, you have the Export Import Bank of China, in my opinion the government of the Bahamas and government of China hold the trump cards.”
On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Ian Winder said he would decide on September 4 if he would grant – or strike out – the government’s winding up petition for the appointment of provisional liquidators to oversee the development.
The winding up petition was filed on July 16 after the first round of talks mediated by the government – led by Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson – in China failed.
Mr Wilchcombe told The Tribune he still believed that all matters could be worked out regardless of how many hours it took at the negotiating table, and despite assertions from many quarters that all doors were closed.
He pointed out that when Atlantis investor Sol Kerzner came to the Bahamas, it was not a completely smooth process but government leaders at the time “disagreed agreeably.”
“All players have voiced their commitment to seeing this resolved so unless they’re bull-crapping us, let’s get it done,” he said.
“These matters are not decided in court rooms, the process just creates more delay and more negatives. It’s too much of an exact science, what we require is something that doesn’t sit on legal books – a heart and a head.”
“What are we going to achieve by creating the anger? The enemies? I can’t figure that one out,” he added.
Mr Wilchcombe expressed his confidence in Prime Minister Perry Christie’s ability to mediate an out-of-court resolution between major stakeholders given his strong relationship with the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping.
He said Mr Christie’s “brilliance” lay in his adeptness as a negotiator, adding that he was sure the prime minister would prefer to have the matter resolved out of court.
Mr Wilchcombe said the current environment was a “crying shame” considering the amount of “time, energy and ingenuity” invested by stakeholders.
“I’m not worried about stalled negotiations, I think it requires the strength of players with the will and determination, and who want to turn impossible to possible,” he said.
“The biggest losers in this game are the Bahamian people. It’s not going to make Sarkis (Izmirlian) any poorer, or CCA, or the Chinese bank any poorer, but we are poorer at the moment because we have an idle facility and many hopes of Bahamians have been dashed.”
“I think we should continue our mediation,” he said. “Of course we are in a precarious position now but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Even if we succeed in this current route, we’re still facing an uphill battle.”
“Obviously it’s not going to go that easily, I don’t think anyone thinks that. There will be appeals and a heavy cost to the government, and until such time that it is resolved in the US, we still have to pay the bills. Why should we pay those bills? As the saying goes, we ‘can’t be penny wise and pound foolish.‘ Too much goodwill is being lost in this,” he added.
Last week, Rosewood Hotels and Resorts International, one of the hotel brands at Baha Mar, filed a motion in a Delaware bankruptcy court to terminate its licence with the development on West Bay Street.
The motion was filed the same day the government began arguments for its petition to wind up Baha Mar in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it owes the state upwards of $59m to various entities.
In an earlier interview with The Tribune, Mr Wilchcombe said the potential withdrawal of the major hotel brand was a “big loss” for the country.