By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Baha Mar’s prospective purchaser was yesterday said to be confident it will obtain the necessary casino license prior to its April 21 opening, even though one will not be issued before the end of March.
An innocuous-looking advertisement from the Gaming Board, placed in the newspapers last Friday, announced that a public hearing on a gaming license application from Sky Warrior (Bahamas) Ltd will be held on March 31 at the British Colonial Hilton.
Sky Warrior (Bahamas) is the subsidiary of Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE), Baha Mar’s prospective purchaser, that will own and operate the project’s 100,000 square foot casino, the largest in the Caribbean.
This means that the Gaming Board ad relates to the Baha Mar casino license. Read another way, it says that just three weeks prior to the $4.2 billion development’s ‘soft opening’, CTFE does not have the necessary casino license in place.
It also raises questions as to why Baha Mar has begun training casino staff without first holding the necessary license, the project announcing last week that it had begun dealer training for 170 recently-hired gaming employees.
Robert Sands, Baha Mar’s vice-president of government and external affairs, declined to comment yesterday when questioned about the Gaming Board ad, and its implications for Baha Mar’s casino license and possible April 21 opening.
However, a source familiar with Baha Mar’s status, speaking on condition of anonymity, downplayed the Gaming Board advertisement, even though it said the regulator would not make a “final adjudication” on CTFE/Sky Warrior’s application before March 31.
They added that the Gaming Board was merely following the procedure outlined in the Gaming Act 2014, especially section 20 (2), which states: “The Board shall conduct a hearing in respect of an application for a gaming license.”
The source said: “That is a statutory requirement, and CTFE is satisfied that it will have its casino license in time for the opening on April 21.
“There are many things that they have to do in anticipation of the 21st. It’s a process they have to go through. They’re doing everything that’s required for them to be open on the 21st, and all their statutory requirements will be in place.”
Two Cabinet ministers who were heavily involved in the negotiations to resolve the Baha Mar debacle, and get the property open, Allyson Maynard-Gibson and Jerome Fitzgerald, did not return Tribune Business e-mails seeking comment on the casino license situation. Mobile voice mail boxes for both Mr Fitzgerald and Obie Wilchcombe, minister with responsibility for gaming, were said to be full when this newspaper called.
However, the Gaming Board ad was seized upon by the Government’s political opponents and allies of former developer, Sarkis Izmirlian, who argued that the “cart is being put before the horse” on Baha Mar’s casino license.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, the FNM candidate for Freetown and a former Baha Mar director under Mr Izmirlian, said the casino license award should have come before CTFE hired its senior gaming management, ordered and installed its machines, and trained staff.
“This is obviously putting the cart before the horse and a bending of the rules to accommodate the Chinese,” Mr D’Aguilar blasted to Tribune Business.
“They are doing whatever they have to do to get this hotel open by April 21. There’s no doubt about it.
“There’s so much shenanigans going on in the background. The deal has not been revealed, the casino license application is only now being heard, and they want to get this done before the election.”
Mr D’Aguilar continued: “They are rushing, and bending the rules and procedures in time for the election, so they can tell the Bahamian people: ‘We’ve opened this great hotel’. Everyone knows it’s an election gimmick.
“You can’t book a room at Baha Mar online, they’ve done no marketing and don’t have a casino license. What do you have? You have nothing.”
Others suggested that CTFE’s actions, hiring and training employees ahead of the casino license award, suggested that the March 31 hearing was “a fait accompli’, with the decision already taken and the company knowing it would receive the necessary approvals.
“I suppose the argument could be made that it’s a fait accompli, and so they’ve jumped the gun to get a head start,” K P Turnquest, the FNM’s deputy leader, told Tribune Business.
He backed Mr D’Aguilar, agreeing that the casino license situation and lack of marketing, raised questions about the April 21 opening and whether it was achievable.
“We’re obviously very pleased that Bahamians are being employed. We hope there will be a job for them when the project opens, and that it will open in timely fashion,” Mr Turnquest said.
“One of the things we don’t want to be accused of is hoping for a failure, like the Government says; that’s not the truth at all.... But with no casino license granted thus far, we are concerned about the long-term nature of this engagement.”
Mr D’Aguilar said it was currently impossible to book a room at Baha Mar on top websites such as Expedia, Travelocity and hotel.com, and accused the Government of seeking to “bamboozle” Bahamians into think everything was well at the Cable Beach-based property.
While emphasising that he wanted Baha Mar open, and for Bahamians to be employed, Mr D’Aguilar also expressed concern over whether the first 1,500 Bahamians hired would be continuously employed. He questioned whether they would be released after April 21, and then re-hired in 2018.
The casino is among the amenities scheduled to be opened next month, along with Baha Mar’s convention centre, golf course and between 2,000-1,000 rooms at the Hyatt-branded casino hotel.
CTFE has also emphasised that it is more focused on delivering the promised guest experience as opposed to a rapid-fire opening, as it moves for a phased ramp-up of operations and staff in preparation for a full launch in 2018.
The casino license is vital to both Baha Mar’s operations and the CTFE purchase, given that the amenity sits at the centre of the property and was designed as the largest in the Caribbean, making gaming the chief attraction for visitors.
CTFE and its owners, the Cheng family, do not have a history as casino operators, instead being investors in the industry in Macau through Stanley Ho’s STDM and SJM companies.
However, both Atlantis and Baha Mar’s original developer, Mr Izmirlian, have - and sought to - develop casino gaming under their own brands, bringing in the necessary management expertise.
CTFE has recently publicised the re-hiring of former expatriate casino executives who were originally engaged by Mr Izmirlian to operate and run the Baha Mar casino.