By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A veteran Freeport retailer says he is suffering International Bazaar “deja vu” with sales across his two Lucaya-area stores down 82 per cent since Hurricane Matthew.
Godfrey Roberts, who owns the sundries store in the Grand Lucayan, and Seahorse Drug Mart in Port Lucaya, told Tribune Business that the business climate in the Marketplace was eerily similar to that which had confronted the Bazaar in 2004.
Revealing that his businesses had suffered a “bitter blow” with the collective loss of $500,000 in sales since Matthew, Mr Roberts said the Marketplace was “like a morgue some days” due to the lack of customer traffic.
With his Grand Lucayan store closed since October 4, like much of the hotel itself, Mr Roberts, a 45-year Freeport veteran, indicated he was losing hope, with the city unable to survive any further hits of Matthew’s scale.
Pointing out that the Grand Lucayan and Memories owner, Hutchison Whampoa, “hasn’t struck the first nail yet” on hurricane repairs, he expressed fears that the Hong Kong-based conglomerate may follow the example set by Driftwood in 2004 over the Royal Oasis.
The latter, having collected the insurance proceeds in the aftermath of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, exited Freeport by closing the resort and putting it on the market for sale, with 1,200 Bahamians losing their jobs.
Hutchison Whampoa, which has extensive Freeport-based interests via its $1 billion-plus investments in the Container Port, plus the partnership with the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) in DevCo, the Harbour Company and Airport Company, is less likely to follow Driftwood’s ‘cut and run’ example.
Yet uncertainty surrounds its intentions towards the Grand Lucayan and the sales process it initiated last year, with an offer to acquire the property by the Canadian-based real estate developer, the Wynn Group, still said to be ‘on the table’.
“I was on the Board at the Bazaar when it was hit after Jeanne and Frances, and it seems like deja vu with how Port Lucaya will be pretty soon,” Mr Roberts told Tribune Business of the hotel closures’ impact.
“I’m down 82 per cent in sales since the hurricane. I’m down 70-some per cent at Port Lucaya, and at the Grand Lucayan I’m down 100 per cent. That’s close to $500,000 in sales. That’s a bitter blow with the way things are doing down.
“At Port Lucaya, different stores are closing every month. It seems like more are going to close. I don’t know what will happen in March.”
While grateful for the 50 per cent discount on rent provided by Peter Hunt, the Marketplace’s owner, Mr Roberts said this was not enough to compensate for the lack of tourist and local consumer traffic, and sales.
“Even if the rent is free, you’re truly not doing enough to make a profit when you’re doing $200-$300 in sales a day,” he added. “It’s like a morgue some days.
“I’ve had to let four to five people go from the hotel, and two from Port Lucaya. To tell you the truth, I was talking to the Labour Board this morning, and saying don’t [be surprised] if you get more people from Port Lucaya.
“To live, I have to work the store myself. It kills me, but that’s the way it is. There’s just no way to survive in this type of atmosphere, but the whole island is like this,” Mr Roberts continued.
“We have so many problems. It’s very, very bad. We have too many underlying factors for Freeport to survive another hit after the hurricane. There’s no hope. There’s a lot of things, and nobody seems to be trying to get ahead of the times.”
Mr Roberts said that apart from the loss of stopover tourist traffic due to the Memories pull-out, and Grand Lucayan closure, the Marketplace was also being hurt by the absence of cruise passengers.
“They’re not even allowed in their ‘point of interest’ talks to mention the word Port Lucaya,” he told Tribune Business of the cruise ships, echoing recent comments by fellow retailer, David Fingland, who said Freeport and Grand Bahama were no longer being marketed as a retail/shopping destination to passengers.
Mr Roberts, meanwhile, recalled the demise of the International Bazaar in the wake of the 2004 hurricane season and Royal Oasis closure, drawing parallels between that and the current state of Port Lucaya Marketplace.
Noting that he managed City Associates, the Bazaar’s largest owner, when he first came to Freeport, Mr Roberts said: “I remember when you had a souvenir store in the main arcade that did $5,000-$7,000 per day 40 years ago.
“Right before Frances and Jeanne, I had a souvenir store on Hong Kong street that was doing $3,000 per day.”
From 144 stores and attractions at its peak, Mr Roberts said the Bazaar had declined to just nine functioning businesses, including a barber’s shop, “strip joint”, bar and convenience store.
“Why people are still holding out is beyond me,” he added of the Bazaar. “It really needs to be bulldozed down. It will take millions of dollars to repair the infrastructure; sewerage
“I can see it coming just like that [with Port Lucaya], as people can’t take it. There’s just not enough traffic. We don’t have any air traffic here at all, and with Memories closed we’ve lost all that Canadian business. There’s absolutely nothing.”
Mr Roberts said it was impossible to “know who to believe” over the possible Grand Lucayan sale, and how far it progressed, suggesting that the upcoming general election had further clouded what was going on.