By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Baha Mar’s new owner will start the process to hire thousands of Bahamian workers next week Monday, as it targets April 21, 2017, for a first phase opening.
“I can confirm we will begin the recruitment and hiring process on January 16,” Robert Sands, Baha Mar’s senior vice-president of government and external affairs, told Tribune Business.
“Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE) is dedicated to the success and timely opening of Baha Mar. Beginning on April 21, we’ll have a phased opening focusing on the casino hotel, the casino, the convention centre and the golf course.”
Mr Sands added that CTFE’s “initial hiring priority” was to fill positions at the golf course, including its food and beverage operations, and the casino and casino hotel.
Among the casino posts available in the first recruitment wave will be shift managers and workers; slot operators; cashiers; cage operators; and certain security posts.
“We will begin to hire for the hotel in February,” Mr Sands said, “which will include both ‘heart of the house’ and ‘front of the house’ operations, and support services such as IT, financial and human resources. We are hoping to have in place at least 1,500 jobs by mid-April.”
Mr Sands said CTFE was “very optimistic” that the April 21 opening date will be hit, even though the project’s main contractor, China Construction America (CCA), has been blamed by many as being the primary cause of Baha Mar’s woes because it missed two earlier completion deadlines.
“We’re very optimistic and very encouraged by, certainly, the work that has been started, and are looking forward to getting this all completed in time,” he told Tribune Business.
“The timelines have been established by the parties collectively, and certainly for the areas that we have in our first phase opening, we’re satisfied that we have the commitment from CCA and the Export-Import Bank to ensure those initial elements are in fact met.”
The Government will also be especially keen that April 21 is hit, given that it is likely just two-three weeks before the date it will select for the imminent general election.
Given that just part of Baha Mar, including 700-800 hotel rooms, is targeted for the first phase, the hope will be that CCA hits its targets with a smaller amount of real estate to work on.
“The opportunities will begin, certainly for employment, after January 16,” Mr Sands said, adding that the recruitment effort would employ both traditional and social media outreach.
Confirming that there would be no ‘first preference’ for former Baha Mar employees, Mr Sands urged Bahamians “to be ready and have their resumes dusted off”.
He said: “We’re looking for the right aptitude and good attitude. Those are the two key elements. They are critical.
“In some areas expertise and experience will be required. We will certainly do training once persons are hired as they will have to meet the specifications of resort brands.”
The Christie administration will be keenly hoping that the start of Baha Mar’s recruitment and hiring will finally convince Bahamians that the multi-billion dollar project’s opening is ‘for real’.
They will also want it to ‘change the narrative’ over Baha Mar, which last week focused on the VAT exemption granted to the project’s entire construction completion - and not just to the main contractor, CCA.
The ‘VAT exemption’ revelation added further fuel to claims by Opposition politicians that the Government has ‘given away’ too much to the Chinese, in terms of tax breaks and investment incentives, to ensure Baha Mar’s completion and opening.
And it reignited calls for the Government to fully disclose the various agreements it has made with the China Export-Import Bank, Baha Mar’s secured creditor, and CTFE to secure the project’s completion and opening. The agreement with the bank is currently ‘sealed’ by Supreme Court order.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, a former Baha Mar director under original developer, Sarkis Izmirlian, told Tribune Business that the Government’s agreements with the Chinese were “clearly a bad deal” that may end up costing the Bahamian people between $3-$4 billion.
“We mustn’t lose sight of what this has cost us already,” the FNM’s Montagu candidate said, adding that Baha Mar was set to open more than two years after the second missed deadline under Mr Izmirlian.
“These two years of delay have cost the economy of the Bahamas $2.5 billion, $600 million in lost wages and $400 million in lost [government] revenue so far.”
Arguing that the ‘VAT construction exemption’ represented “additional cost” in terms of lost revenue, Mr D’Aguilar added: “The question is not whether this is a good deal or not, but was this the best deal available?
“Because they’ve clouded this transaction in darkness, it’s a deal baked in the backroom away from the Bahamian people.
“They tell us this was the best deal, but I contend that it was not, because the project has been delayed and they’ve been forced to give extra concessions. The cost of this transaction is humungous.”
Mr D’Aguilar did not identity the ‘better deal’ he was implicitly referring to, but it is likely to have been the repeated offers by Mr Izmirlian to re-purchase Baha Mar and make all creditors ‘whole’.
The former developer never provided ‘proof of financing’, though, and many - including the Government - felt he lacked the funding to do what he was promising, regarding his numerous offers as a ‘PR stunt’.
Mr D’Aguilar, though, argued that the ‘VAT exemption’ was necessary for the Government to “pay off their Chinese lover”, and questioned whether Beijing’s “tentacles have spread” far enough “to take control of our economy and government”.
“When they went all in with the Chinese, they became beholden to Beijing,” he added. “If they were happy with this deal, and thought it was the best deal, why not show it to the Bahamian people? We don’t know what’s transpired, what’s been given away.”
However, one non-government source familiar with the Baha Mar completion agreements told Tribune Business that there was nothing unusual about the confidentiality surrounding the deal or the ‘VAT exemption’.
They explained that deals of Baha Mar’s size, wherever they occurred, were always negotiated quietly, and away from publicity.
However, the source acknowledged that the Government’s involvement - and especially the multi-billion dollar tax incentives and inclusion of Crown/Treasury land - meant there were “competing factors” in play when it came to the arguments over secrecy and public disclosure.
“If you disassociate it from the controversy, very few big deals like this are done in the open,” they told Tribune Business. “That has nothing to do with Baha Mar itself.
“Any deal of this size, negotiated between the parties, will have numerous non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality agreements. People familiar with commercial transactions know this.”
Suggesting that “nothing would have been done”, and no purchase of Baha Mar would have taken place, had the negotiations taken place in public, the source agreed that the Government’s involvement required “a balancing act” in terms of transparency.
They added, though, that the total VAT exemption granted for Baha Mar’s construction completion would likely have been given for any project of similar size, given that the tax is a ‘pass through’ which is paid by consumers.