By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Freeport residents are "incredulous" that the Royal Oasis's owner has been permitted "to do nothing" with the property for 10 years, the island's Chamber of Commerce chief says.
Mick Holding backed the move by Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, to engage Harcourt Developments over its plans for a property that many believe initiated Freeport's demise when the previous owner walked away almost 13 years ago.
Mr Thompson, in a statement following his meeting with Harcourt, said he expressed the Government's "dissatisfaction" with the lack of investment activity at the Royal Oasis property.
He added that he "made it clear that the status quo cannot" continue, and expressed the Minnis administration's desire for Harcourt to either make an "injection of capital" into the property or sell it.
Supporting the Minister's stance, Mr Holding said many Freeport and Grand Bahama residents had "almost forgotten" about the Royal Oasis - due both to the length of its closure and being overtaken by new concerns surrounding the Grand Lucayan's fate.
"It's staggering in many ways that things have been allowed to run as long as they have," he told Tribune Business of the Royal Oasis. "There are a lot of people in Grand Bahama that find it incredulous that they've [Harcourt] been allowed to do nothing for so long.
"I'm very pleased to hear that the Minister of State for Grand Bahama has opened discussions with Harcourt again, and I wish him the best of luck. If they're not prepared to do anything, pressure should be brought on them to sell. They can't sit there and do nothing."
Mr Thompson said Harcourt, which had already invested in Freeport via the Suffolk Court project prior to its Royal Oasis acquisition, had "expressed their commitment" to the city and "a desire" for the Royal Oasis property to move forward.
The Irish headquartered property developer acquired the resort for $33 million just prior to the 2007 general election. It could have sealed the purchase from Driftwood (Freeport) and its financier, Lehman Brothers' private equity arm, a year earlier if the then-Christie government had not decided to embrace another suitor who ultimately failed to deliver.
That wasted year may have proved fatal to the Royal Oasis's redevelopment, for Harcourt and the property/resort development industry were hit within months of the purchase by the worldwide 'credit crunch' and subsequent 2008-2009 recession.
The developer was forced to place the resort in 'cold storage', where it has been ever since. Harcourt was also hit when the Jersey courts threw out its £100 million damages claim for 'breach of contract', after it lost a deal to build Jersey's finance district.
However, news coverage from the UK and Ireland suggests that Harcourt is becoming more active in its home market, with the £28 million Titanic Hotel in Belfast set to open this September. This suggests that Mr Thompson's decision to engage the property developer, which also owns the Carlisle Bay hotel in Antigua, may be well-timed.
However, Harcourt's website gives little clue that it has any development plans for the Royal Oasis, describing the 425-acre property and its 1,400 rooms as "currently closed".
Mr Holding, meanwhile, suggested that redeveloping the Royal Oasis property - although it will take years - was just as important to Freeport's economy and its future as a tourist destination as re-opening the Grand Lucayan.
"Perhaps because it's been going on for so long, the Royal Oasis complex has almost been forgotten," he told Tribune Business. "Not totally forgotten, but it's not foremost in people's minds.
"The complex is in a sorry state, no doubt about it. I drove around there at Christmas, the first time since it closed, but the buildings are crumbling. I'm no engineer, but I would not be surprised if nothing can be done apart from demolishing it.
"It's been 13 years since Hurricane Frances came through, and apart from boarding it up, nothing's been done. Even if a deal was signed tomorrow, it would be years before anything happened. It's not an easy one, particularly the length of time it's been sitting there."
Mr Holding emphasised that the International Bazaar and other tourist-related businesses in the vicinity had suffered accordingly from the Royal Oasis's closure, and added that "a big injection of capital" would be necessary to restore the area.
He added, though, that "a second tourist hub would be great for the overall economy of the island and to inject some life into that area".
Recalling the Royal Oasis closure's impact, and the loss of 1,200 jobs, the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce president said it would be unfair to blame the resort for all the island's woes over the past 13 years.
Yet he added that the property's redevelopment, even if it took years, would provide a major boost to consumer and business confidence in Freeport.
"I don't think we can put all the woes of Grand Bahama on to this particular issue," Mr Holding told Tribune Business. "Yet this was the beginning of the problems we currently face, and some would argue we've never really recovered from the 2004 hurricanes and the closure of the Royal Oasis.
"It would be a huge boost to people's expectations for the future if some activity could be done. Even if it's five years before it opens, the fact people can see work carried out would be a huge boost to economic confidence."
Mr Holding urged the Government to tackle the Grand Lucayan and Royal Oasis in parallel, acknowledging that the former would in theory take months to open, compared to years for the latter.