By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Baha Mar’s main contractor was yesterday said to have “moved mountains” to ensure the project received its first phase temporary Certificate of Occupancy (TCO) on deadline, with outstanding code items able to be “counted on one hand”.
Tribune Business sources familiar with the $4.2 billion development’s progress towards completion said China Construction America (CCA) had achieved “tremendous success” in getting the resort ready for its April 21 ‘soft’ opening.
The Government, eager to demonstrate progress at Baha Mar ahead of the imminent general election, staged the handover of the temporary TCO to prospective purchaser Chow Tai Fook Enterprises (CTFE), outside the development yesterday.
The move drew predictable reactions, with the Democratic National Alliance’s (DNA) leader, Branville McCartney, reiterating the widely-held belief among Opposition politicians and many Bahamians that April 21 is merely “a stunt” to boost the Government’s re-election prospects.
However, Tribune Business’s contacts said CCA appears to have confounded the doubters, especially former developer, Sarkis Izmirlian, who blamed the Chinese state-owned conglomerate for Baha Mar’s fall into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in late June 2015.
“With CCA, you’re talking about moving mountains,” a contact familiar with Baha Mar’s construction told Tribune Business.
“There are said to be a couple of matters that are non-compliant for [Bahamas Building] Code. On Monday that number was down to four, and I heard today [Tuesday] that they are now down to two.
“It is down to items on one hand, which is a tremendous success, given where they came from in October last year.”
Tribune Business was told that CCA’s diligence was such that if the Ministry of Works’ inspection agents found an area that was unsafe, or not up to Building Code, a team was immediately dispatched to rectify those faults the same day.
The speed with which CCA has completed the amenities that will feature in Baha Mar’s ‘soft opening’ is unlikely to be lost on Mr Izmirlian, who blamed the contractor’s “shoddy workmanship” - and its failure to complete the project on time, and on budget - for two missed opening dates and the Chapter 11 debacle.
One source familiar with Mr Izmirlian’s position, and speaking on condition of anonymity, said of CCA: “If they have been able to do in six months what they couldn’t do in a year, what were they doing in that time?”
Tribune Business understands that March 21 had been set as the TCO issuance deadline because CTFE wanted 30 days to get its newly-hired staff “up to speed”, and familiar with Baha Mar’s amenities, prior to the ‘soft opening’.
The Hong Kong-based conglomerate indicated as much in a release yesterday afternoon, adding that itself and Grand Hyatt, which will operate the casino and convention hotels, plus the convention centre, are now “placing final touches” on guest rooms and the ‘phase one’ facilities.
The TCO gives CTFE “full rights” to use all Baha Mar amenities included in the first phase ‘soft opening’, including the convention centre, casino and casino hotel, but it remains “on the hook” for any unsafe, non-Code compliant items that need to be addressed.
“It will be a situation where Building Control will say: ‘We’ll let you use it, but you have 60 days, 90 days to take care of what’s left,” a contractor familiar with the process told Tribune Business.
Once these issues are dealt with, the Ministry of Works releases any remaining authority over the project via a full Certificate of Occupancy (CO), with all permits and approvals granted to Baha Mar’s.
Tribune Business understands that Baha Mar’s elevators obtained the necessary certification yesterday, while “the least complete” items at the time of the Chapter 11 filing - the fire and smoke management systems - have also passed inspection.
It is also understood that CCA was granted a one-year contract by Baha Mar’s secured lender, the China Export-Import Bank, to complete the project’s physical construction.
This places Baha Mar’s likely completion at around October 2017, which is probably when CTFE’s purchase of the property will finally close, given that the timing depends on being handed a finished resort product.
CTFE yesterday said the TCO showed that all Baha Mar’s safety, mechanical and electrical systems were up to Code standard, paving the way for the $4.2 billion project’s occupancy.
However, Opposition politicians have repeatedly dismissed the April 21 opening as an election ploy or “gimmick”, arguing that its timing is designed to boost the Christie administration’s re-election chances.
To support their case, they are pointing to Tribune Business’s revelation that no casino license will be in place 21 days prior to Baha Mar’s opening; the resort’s reservation system is not operational; and that no significant marketing has been conducted by CTFE.
Tribune Business sources have suggested that the Government’s strategy is to avoid or deflect answering questions on these issues, and instead focus solely on the impending opening and the 1,500 jobs created for Bahamians.
An e-mail reply to Tribune Business’s questions on the yet-to-be-issued casino license bears this out, as Jerome Fitzgerald, minister of education, science and technology, completely skirted the matter.
“All indications are that the hotel and casino will open on April 21,” Mr Fitzgerald, who sits on the Cabinet committee dealing with Baha Mar, told this newspaper in response. “Hundreds of persons are now employed, and thousands more before the end of 2017. God is Good! Feel free to quote me.”
However, the DNA’s Mr McCartney charged: “Anyone can see that it is just a stunt, for want of a better word, for the governing party to say they’ve opened Baha Mar. This government will do anything to try and fight for its political survival.”
Emphasising that he wanted to see Baha Mar open, and Bahamians employed, Mr McCartney argued that the Christie administration could not treat April 21 as “a feather in their cap” because it caused the property’s closure via the Supreme Court winding-up petition - part of the process that ultimately ousted Mr Izmirlian.
The DNA leader added that the Government was “again putting the cart before the horse” on the casino, given that no license had yet been issued to CTFE’s subsidiary, Sky Warrior Bahamas.
“All of this goes towards the PLP government trying to have it look as they’re doing something right before the election,” Mr McCartney said. “I guarantee you that the election will be called shortly after the soft opening of Baha Mar.”
Graeme Davis, CTFE’s president, previously said Baha Mar’s marketing initiatives would not ramp up immediately, given that the peak winter season is almost over and it wanted to ensure the guest experience is right.
CTFE’s release yesterday said Baha Mar’s website will open in early April, along with the reservation system for Grand Hyatt Baha Mar. However, with just 200 rooms likely to be ready, the first persons to stay at Baha Mar will likely be invited guests and travel industry executives.
The golf course, and some 20 restaurants and bars, will be open by April 21, with CTFE pledging that it is hiring 1,000 employees for Baha Mar’s casino, food and beverage outlets, housekeeping, and operations units as part of the 1,500 total.
The Hong Kong-based conglomerate added that 170 employees, including 125 dealers and table game supervisors, had been hired for Baha Mar’s casino. It is targeting more than 300 casino employees by April 21.
“We are in the final stretch of bringing the Baha Mar dream to life,” said Mr Davis. “You can feel the energy, excitement and spirit amongst the Baha Mar family, who are working hard to open our doors next month and introduce the beautiful destination of the Bahamas to our first guests.”
Besides Mr Davis, Baha Mar’s executive committee features Alex Pariente, executive vice-president of casino operations and marketing; John Zaremba, vice-president of casino operations; Karin Salinas, vice-president of marketing; and Kirsty Cowper, vice-president of human resources and organisational development.