By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Freeport-based attraction operator yesterday said the Grand Lucayan's closure, and Carnival's proposed cruise port, must be resolved to sustain an expansion that will create 20 jobs.
David Wallace, a principal in the all-Bahamian group that has invested more than $1 million to develop the Pirates Cove Water Theme Park, told Tribune Business that its zip-line attraction will be installed within two months.
He explained that the $250,000 investment would generate 20 additional jobs, taking Pirates Cove's total workforce to around 55-60 persons in an economy where every job is desperately needed.
However, Mr Wallace warned that the group's investment and much-needed jobs could be squeezed between Freeport's 'anchor property' re-opening and a failure to reach an acceptable agreement/accommodation with Carnival.
He explained that Pirates Cove, and other Freeport-based attraction, excursion and tour providers, were seeking to arrange a joint meeting with the cruise line and Minnis administration to address concerns over its east Grand Bahama cruise port.
Mr Wallace had previously warned via Tribune Business that Carnival's private port would be "the kiss of death" for himself and other Bahamian entrepreneurs, with the project threatening to suck away 90 per cent of his customer base.
The fear is that Freeport-based entrepreneurs will "wither and die" if Carnival shifts vessels exclusively to its own facility and bypasses Freeport, potentially threatening hundreds of jobs - and thousands of dependents - with potential loss of employment.
Mr Wallace yesterday, though, expressed hope that Bahamian operators would be able to reach an agreement where "our product would be available to their clients" - meaning Carnival's passengers would be able to leave the private port and patronise businesses outside.
"What a group of us thought we would do, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, was invite Carnival to a meeting," he explained. "We were also allowing the Government to get sworn in and pass the Budget.
"Now that the House is in recess, we are going to seek out the Chamber of Commerce, who have been in communication with Carnival, to invite them to a meeting with the stakeholders affected."
Mr Wallace said the proposed cruise port, which was approved by the former Christie administration prior to the general election, did not present an immediate threat to Freeport-based operators since it would take around two years to construct when all approvals - including envrionmental permits - were obtained.
He added that Carnival was currently sustaining much of the Freeport tourism industry by bringing in 20 cruise ship calls per month, and urged the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) to prepare a contingency plan to attract other cruise lines "if Carnival does move".
Mr Wallace instead indicated that the short-term priority must be to re-open the Grand Lucayan, as the loss of Memories and the Breaker's Cay property had deprived Freeport of more than 1,000 rooms or 59 per cent of its total inventory.
Describing the 200 available rooms at the Lighthouse Pointe as "a drop in the bucket", he added: "All the vendors at the Port Lucaya Marketplace and the harbour look forward to the cruise line days to generate some business.
"Ordinarily, the Grand Lucayan would sustain the Port Lucaya Marketplace, as tourists would come across to shop and eat. Because that hotel is closed, there is minimal activity from stopover tourists.
"Some of the stores only open their doors on busy cruise ship days. Otherwise, it's a lot cheaper to keep their doors closed."
Mr Wallace said Pirates Cove had always relied heavily on the cruise lines to generate the bulk of its customers, but the addition of the zip-line meant Grand Lucayan's re-opening was vital to generating a return on this investment.
"We need the hotel open to increase our business volumes," he told Tribune Business. "We have signed a contract with a company out of Jamaica that has built 13 zip-lines in the Caribbean.
"They will be coming to Freeport in 30 days to install it, and we expect to have it complete in two months..... We will be adding another 15 jobs with the zip-line, and four at the photo booth line; around 20 jobs will probably be added, in addition to the 35-40 in the park currently."
Despite current pessimism, Mr Wallace expressed confidence in Freeport and Grand Bahama's economic future, indicating that he and his fellow investors planned to be around for the long-term.
"I think that there is hope for Freeport," he told Tribune Business. "Freeport has great potential, things will get better, and I'm looking forward to seeing how we will be around and part of the Freeport economy."