By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Tenants in Freeport's Port Lucaya Marketplace are planning a march to highlight their plight, one operator saying yesterday: "I can't see 95 per cent of us surviving another two months."
Troy Cartwright, who is leading efforts to organise the march, told Tribune Business that he and other retail/restaurant operators were in "crisis" after the Memories and Grand Lucayan closures caused a 95 per cent consumer traffic fall-off.
He explained that this had resulted in revenues at his business, Nikki's Trinkets, collapsing from $15,000-$18,000 per month prior to Hurricane Matthew to just $50 every two days "if I'm lucky".
Besides being unable to retain staff and purchase inventory, Mr Cartwright said the sales loss had left him - and many others - struggling to meet their rent and electricity bills.
Pledging to "redouble" efforts to form a march, he said the initiative was not intended to be anti-government - but rather "to expose Hutchison Whampoa as the bad guy".
Many Freeport residents and businesses view the Hong Kong-based conglomerate as the principal cause of Freeport's latest woe, due to its failure to repair and re-open the hotels following Matthew - a failure that saw Memories and Sunwing abandon Grand Bahama.
Mr Cartwright said that while the Minnis administration's plans for reviving Grand Bahama's economy were welcomed, he warned that many businesses may not survive to see them "materialise".
"We are in incredibly bad shape," he told Tribune Business of Port Lucaya Marketplace. "We've lost 95 per cent of our traffic. Before the storm, I was clearing $15,000-$18,000 per month. Right now, I'm lucky to make $50 every 48 hours."
Mr Cartwright's financial situation is typical of many tenants previously interviewed by Tribune Business, some of whom have already closed their stores.
The Breaker's Cay (Grand Lucayan) and Memories closures have deprived Grand Bahama of more than 1,000 hotel rooms, while also costing Port Lucaya Marketplace tenants a significant portion of their customer base.
With access to the Grand Lucayan beach still closed, visiting cruise ships have directed their passengers away from the Lucaya area to 'beach break, excursion and tour providers.
Mr Cartwright said his business had previously been rated "the most original Bahamian store" in the Marketplace, as it sold only authentic local products such as seashell jewellery, conch shells, straw hats and canvas paintings.
"None of our products are made in China," he emphasised. "Everything is crafted and created by Bahamian hands. We did beachcomber tours at Eight Mile Rock Beach, picking up sea shells and glass on the beach. They loved it; absolutely loved it.
"But since the hurricane we're in a position where we can't pay our rent, have difficulty keeping the electricity on, and can't hire or keep on staff - we have to run it ourselves.
"It's the same story for all the tenants at Port Lucaya. I can't see how 85-95 per cent of Port Lucaya tenants can survive another two months. Right now, the only way we can see close to significant sales is if it's raining and we have a [cruise] ship in at the same time."
Port Lucaya's prospects of suffering the same fate as the International Bazaar, another dining/shopping location whose success was tied to the existence of a major resort (Royal Oasis), are increasing with every day that the Grand Lucayan property remains closed.
Tribune Business understands that Port Lucaya Marketplace tenants are becoming increasingly frustrated about the perceived lack of information coming from the Minnis administration about the progress of efforts to sell the Grand Lucayan.
The Prime Minister, while in Grand Bahama at the weekend, said vaguely: "We are continuing talks with those interested parties in the Lucayan strip redevelopment. My government is hopeful that these talks will lead to the redevelopment and reopening of this strip in the shortest period of time possible."
K P Turnquest, the Deputy Prime Minister, yesterday told Tribune Business that the Government was giving the Grand Lucayan situation priority attention given its importance to "the economic survival of Port Lucaya Marketplace".
"We recognise that the opening of that property is of critical importance to Grand Bahama, and the economic survival of the Port Lucaya Marketplace and the vendors around it," he said. "It's getting the utmost attention from the Government.
"The entire island of Grand Bahama is obviously very concerned about where we are, and the status of the property," the east Grand Bahama MP added. "We are working as hard and diligently as we can to get this matter resolved, and the hotel open as soon as possible."
Mr Turnquest declined to provide details, referring Tribune Business to Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, as the Prime Minister's Office has primary responsibility for the Grand Lucayan matter (see other article HERE).
A Canadian real estate developer, the Wynn Group, was identified as the Grand Lucayan's prospective purchaser prior to the 2017 general election, with the former Christie administration touting its signing of a 'Letter of Intent' with Hutchison Whampoa.
Philip Davis, the Opposition's leader, yesterday told the House of Assembly that negotiations between Wynn and Hutchison Whampoa were at an "advanced stage" when the Christie administration left office, and all the new government had to do is "see the project through".
However, little progress seems to have been made towards closing a purchase since then. Wynn's plans are understood to involve branding an enlarged casino with the Hard Rock brand, and construction of two new condo hotel towers at the Grand Lucayan property.
Yet Tribune Business sources have suggested that a sales agreement has yet to be signed, with Wynn understood to still be seeking the capital necessary to consummate a purchase and its expansion plans.
Government contacts yesterday suggested that Wynn was just one of the potential purchasers that the Government is talking to.
"They're having discussions with a couple of buyers and operators, and are expecting them to come back to them with a position with respect to what they want to offer very shortly," one source said of the Government's stance.
"The Government has put some things to the potential investors, and they're waiting for them to come back with a final plan."
Mr Cartwright, meanwhile, blamed Hutchison Whampoa's failure to open the resort and provide beach access as the chief cause of Port Lucaya Marketplace's plight.
"The bad guy in this is Hutchison Whampoa," he told Tribune Business. "They abandoned that property. Memories was a very successful resort, and brought us a whole new stream of revenues from Canadian visitors.
"Those Canadians loved it, but Hutchison Whampoa refused to pay for the hurricane repairs and renovations at the hotel."
Confirming plans for the march, Mr Cartwright added: "I'm leading the effort. We're going to redouble our efforts, starting today.
"It's [the march] definitely going to draw the Government's attention, but it's also to expose Hutchison Whampoa as the bad guy. Hutchison Whampoa is our biggest problem.
"I'm sitting here with [attorney] Carey Leonard right now discussing the possibility of suing Hutchison Whampoa. Great harm was caused when they closed that hotel. The perfect scenario would be for Hutchison Whampoa to repair those hotels and open them."
Mr Cartwright said the Minnis administration's plans for Grand Bahama, which include targeting niche tourism markets, the film industry and financial services, were a good long-term strategy but did little to address the immediate emergency.
"We do appreciate the long-term plans, but nothing has been said about the current crisis," he told Tribune Business. "What good are long-term plans if we can't be there when they materialise?
"I believe our Prime Minister should have been here on May 11 for a crisis management meeting. That's where we're at right now. We need that mentality."