By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Port Lucaya Marketplace’s principal yesterday said he “hasn’t run away” as a result of Memories pull-out, and remains willing to invest “many tens of millions” in developing an “Atlantis-style” water park destination in Freeport.
Acknowledging that Memories’ withdrawal was nothing but “bad news” for the Marketplace and its tenants in the short-term, Peter Hunt told Tribune Business that he was looking beyond “the doom and gloom”.
Mr Hunt confirmed that he had spoken to both Memories’ immediate parent, Sunwing, and the Canadian-based real estate developer, Wynn Group, about partnering for an Atlantis-type development should the latter be successful in its bid to acquire the Grand Lucayan property.
He conceded, though, that “the sticking point” to plans that could “transform Freeport overnight” remained the Grand Lucayan’s owner, Hutchison Whampoa, and whether it would be willing to sell the city’s largest resort property on acceptable terms.
Mr Hunt urged Hutchison to “pull the trigger” and allow Wynn, Sunwing and himself to move forward with their potential alliance, which he pledged would make Freeport and its tourism product “better than it was before”.
“We haven’t run away. We’re still prepared to pull the trigger if the resort [Memories] is closed,” Mr Hunt told Tribune Business, confirming that planning work continued on his expansion strategy.
Disclosing that he acquired the Port Lucaya Marketplace as the first step in a growth plan that involved other assets in the area, Mr Hunt said an agreement had been reached with the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) to acquire the Port Lucaya Resort & Yacht Club.
He added that talks were continuing with the Port Lucaya Marina’s principals, Preben Olsen and Tom Gonzalez, over his potential purchase of their facility and an accompanying tract of land, known as ‘Tract J’.
Should these plans come to fruition, Mr Hunt said he would possess the necessary foundation to develop a water-based theme park and associated attractions in the Port Lucaya area, a venture that could create hundreds of Bahamian jobs,
These assets, he added, would complement a Grand Lucayan resort under new ownership, and with Memories and its Blue Diamond Resorts management company restored as hotel operators.
Mr Hunt, though, acknowledged that plans for such a renaissance were dependent on Hutchison Whampoa’s agreement and willingness to exit from the Grand Lucayan.
“The sticking point is Hutchison,” he told Tribune Business. “We want to work with Wynn, Memories. Hutchison need to pull the trigger and let us get on with what we want to do.
“Hutchison is the key to the chest. Everyone is here. This is the first time Grand Bahama has had three investors that are serious - my group, the Wynn group and Sunwing - with the money and capability to make it go.
“My group has the money, team and expertise to do the attractions side. It’s the first time ever in Grand Bahama. The Government needs to talk to us and say: ‘Boys, sit around the table and let’s make this work’.”
Tribune Business previously revealed that the Wynn Group, which is also eyeing a $65 million condominium development at Goodman’s Bay in Nassau, had teamed with Hard Rock and Memories/Sunwing to submit a bid to acquire the Grand Lucayan.
This newspaper was told earlier this week that the offer, said to be around $110 million, was ‘still on the table’ and awaiting a response from Hutchison Whampoa.
Expressing pessimism, one source familiar with the situation said: “It doesn’t look good unless Hutchison blinks. But Hutchison don’t blink normally. I think they’ve got problems.”
Obie Wilchcombe, minister of tourism, and Dr Michael Darville, minister for Grand Bahama, both last week confirmed that the Government was continuing negotiations with both Hutchison Whampoa and Memories, notwithstanding the latter’s pull-out.
While almost 600 Bahamians were said to have lost their jobs as a result of Memories’ pull-out, Sunwing has consistently hinted in its statements on the issue that it is seeking to return to Grand Bahama as a resort operator.
This likely refers to the tie-up with Wynn on the Grand Lucayan bid, as Memories is unlikely to return as tenant of Hutchison Whampoa, given the falling out between the two sides over the post-Hurricane Matthew repairs.
While agreeing that the Memories closure, and associated job losses, represented a devastating economic development for Grand Bahama in the short-term, Mr Hunt said it had not distracted him from his ultimate goals.
“We are still looking at our expansion, with a project at the Port Lucaya Resort & Yacht Club,” he told Tribune Business. “We’re still looking very heavily at it.
“We have a team of guys, ex-Disney who are based in Orlando, working for us on developing some sort of water park attraction.
“We’re still talking to the Port Lucaya Marina guys, Preben Olsen and Tom Gonzalez, and we’re still looking at buying that and doing a mega marina and water park attraction.”
Mr Hunt expressed hope that if he progressed with his projects “it may spur someone on to buy the Grand Lucayan”, given that its value - and that of the overall area - will have been enhanced.
“We still believe in Grand Bahama, still believe in the island, and are looking to invest money in the Port Lucaya Resort & Yacht Club, which we have under agreement with the GBPA,” he added.
“We’re just about to close a deal on it now, but the GBPA Board and shareholders have been very supportive in working with us to make this bigger development happen.
“We’re still quite prepared to invest our money in creating at Atlantis-style water park attraction that will satisfy the cruise people that come off Carnival, those staying at the Grand Lucayan resort, and satisfy locals.”
With just 200 rooms open at the Grand Lucayan, that property’s partial closure, combined with Memories’ pull-out, has cost Grand Bahama some 1,500 hotel rooms.
Mr Hunt, though, said he did not need the hotels to proceed with his plans for Port Lucaya, as the cruise passengers and local customers would provide enough consumer traffic.
He added that his project would complement the plans of a new Grand Lucayan owner, providing the water-based attractions, retail, dining, canal and beach experience that would combine with the hotels and casino.
The Port Lucaya Marketplace principal said he had already reached out to Wynn to inform it about his desire to partner “when the time is right”, and if the Grand Lucayan bid comes off.
“I’m fairly upbeat about it,” Mr Hunt added, saying Freeport and its tourism product will be “a different animal, a different beast” if his vision comes into being.
“I bought Port Lucaya Marketplace because I had this plan in mind to do a complementary development. I’ve never lost sight of the original plan.”
Mr Hunt said the water-based theme park and attractions could create “well over 1,000 jobs” at full build-out, pointing out that an “eight-acre water park in Dubai employs 550”.
He added that employment at Port Lucaya would be much higher because of associated amenities such as the marina, and said the total investment could be “many tens of millions” depending on “how many pieces of the puzzle come in”.