By NATARIO McKENZIE
Tribune Business Reporter
Prime Minister Perry Christie yesterday said he had held Wednesday afternoon talks with the preferred buyer for the Grand Lucayan resort complex, describing the discussions as “very positive” after it improved its offer to Hutchison Whampoa.
Mr Christie, while delivering the keynote address at the Grand Bahama Business Outlook conference, said “The Hutchison Lucayan properties were placed on the market for sale, and negotiations were underway with a preferred bidder prior to the closure due to Hurricane Matthew.
“We are now in ongoing discussions with Hutchison and Sunwing, the previous operator of Memories, on the renovations and reopening of Memories, while simultaneously dealing with a buyer for the purchase of the entire Lucaya resort complex and potential operators for the hotels and casino.”
Mr Christie did not name the ‘preferred buyer, but this is likely to be the Wynn Group, a Canadian-based real estate developer, which has also been interested in constructing a $65 million condominium complex at Goodman’s Bay in New Providence.
Tribune Business previously exclusively revealed Wynn’s identity as a potential purchaser of the Grand Lucayan, with its purchase price offer said to be around $110 million. Memories, the recently departed Hutchison hotel tenant and operator, and Hard Rock, were said to be part of its bid as hotel and casino partners, respectively.
Memories blamed Hutchison’s intransigence over Hurricane Matthew-related repairs for its decision to leave Freeport at the end of January, a move that made 400-500 Bahamians jobless.
Its Vacation Express tour operator, which supplied Grand Bahama with tourists from 13 US cities in the summer, also subsequently withdrew citing a lack of room inventory, costing the island 30 per cent of its market.
“Hutchison’s hurricane-related insurance claims still remain unsettled, thus complicating the restoration process,” said Mr Christie yesterday, in an explanation for why no repair work has yet started.
Attempting to strike an upbeat tone amid the gloom surrounding Freeport’s resort industry, the Prime Minister added: “I had a very positive teleconference update from the prospective purchaser, who had expanded his offer to Hutchison, increasing the scope and level of investments.
“He is now planning to involve four well-known brands in the operation of the hotels and casino. I’m speaking to it because it has now reached that stage where I regard it as real.”
Mr Christie added: “It is intended for him to add other attractions, and work with stakeholders to turn the entire Lucayan strip into a distinctive and lively destination.
“What excited me about the discussions was that for the first time I started to feel that we have an opportunity, through this level of interest, that is going to integrate into the tourism mix in Grand Bahama some wonderful brands.”
However, noticeably absent from Mr Christie’s comments was anything about how Hutchison Whampoa has reacted to the offer, and whether it is prepared to sell the Grand Lucayan on terms - and at a price - acceptable to a buyer.
The damage inflicted by Hurricane Matthew removed 1,500 rooms from Grand Bahama’s hotel inventory, with Memories now totally closed. At the Grand Lucayan, just 200 rooms are open at the Lighthouse Point section, with Breaker’s Cay also entirely closed following the Category Four storm.
The closures have not only negatively impacted stopover tourist arrivals and employment, but also the wider Grand Bahama tourism economy, especially overnighting cruise passengers and businesses at the Port Lucaya Marketplace.
Hurricane Matthew arrived amid efforts by Hutchison Whampoa’s property arm, Cheung Kong Property Holdings, and its HVS Capital Corporation adviser, to sell the Grand Lucayan - a process that has been underway since early summer 2016.
Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe confirmed to Tribune Business back in January that Memories/Sunwing was seeking to partner with Hard Rock and the Wynn Group on a joint bid to acquire the entire Grand Lucayan resort, including its own property.