By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The former minister of investments yesterday revealed he swiftly rejected the Fyre Festival's organisers when they asked for free Crown Land in the Exumas.
Khaalis Rolle told Tribune Business that the ill-fated festival's promoters approached his ministry in late 2016, seeking Crown Land for a proposed resort development on Norman's Cay.
However, he and his officials "quickly lost interest" when they asked to be given a national asset for free. Mr Rolle said it would have been impossible to justify what would have been a gift to foreign developers.
Emphasising that neither himself, nor the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA), had any involvement with granting Fyre Festival the permits and approvals it needed, Mr Rolle said he only had a brief encounter with the organisers.
"They came to us and expressed the idea to us," the former minister recalled, "and asked for and said they were interested in some Crown Land. They wanted the Government to give them Crown Land.
"We told them: 'Under no circumstances'. What would be the justification for it? They were talking to someone who convinced them it would be a good idea to come and ask the Government for Crown Land. Somebody told them that. I don't know who it was."
Mr Rolle said his encounter with the Fyre Festival organisers was brief and not scheduled, as he met them "just one day when I was walking into my office".
He added: "It was just a preliminary discussion. They said they wanted to do a major festival on Norman's Cay, and they also wanted to do a hotel/resort development on Norman's Cay.
"I think the point that interested us was when they said they wanted to do a resort development on Norman's Cay, but we lost interest immediately when they said they wanted Crown Land to do it. That was the first and last discussion with them."
Mr Rolle said it appeared as if the Fyre Festival was intended to be "part of the marketing" for the proposed resort, and he gave the event no further thought until someone mentioned in conversation that they had several friends coming in to attend.
Subsequent events have proven Mr Rolle's caution over the Fyre Festival and its organisers correct, although he could not recall whether he met its principals, hip hop artist, Ja Rule, and his technology entrepreneur partner, William McFarland.
The duo's purported hotel plans, and request for free Crown Land - an asset held in trust for the benefit of the Bahamian people - have never been disclosed before.
However, it could be the source of their claim to potential Fyre Festival investors that they had been given $8.4 million worth of land at Roker's Point in Exuma in exchange for holding the festival and promoting the Bahamas.
The 30th page of Fyre Festival's private placement memorandum (PPM), headlined 'Land Ownership', claimed: "Fyre has been given $8.4 million of market value land on Black Point, Exuma, in exchange for hosting the festival and advertising the island."
Dionisio D'Aguilar, the minister of tourism, branded the claim "absolute bulls*". And Pedro Rolle, the Exuma Chamber of Commerce's president and a realtor by profession, told this newspaper that there was "no way" the eventual Fyre Festival site could have been worth that amount, saying "a hell of a lot" of land and beach was needed to meet that valuation.
The Fyre Festival organisers' '$8.4 million of Bahamian land' claim is assuming great significance amid the numerous lawsuits launched against it in the US, with investors alleging it induced them to hand over funding to McFarland. And with the FBI and US attorney's office in southern New York now probing the event, the organisers may have left themselves open to allegations of 'fraudulent misrepresentation'.
Mr Rolle, meanwhile, said he told the Fyre Festival organisers to contact the BIA once they had a firm investment proposal ready to submit.
Explaining that this was the extent of his dealings with them, he added: "When they came in it was just on an idea, but we had no involvement with them other than a discussion of the idea.
"My office had nothing to do with it, absolutely nothing. We didn't know that they were actually still around until I was at the opening of the Warwick Paradise Island just prior to the election, and there was someone there who said they had some people coming in for Fyre Festival.
"When we had the preliminary discussion with them, I don't think they'd decided on the how and why; any of those things. It was not concrete at the time, and I didn't give it a second thought."
Messrs Ja Rule and McFarland ultimately proceeded to disaster, with thousands of festival-goers left stranded in Exuma after the event was ultimately cancelled, provoking a mad scramble to leave the Bahamas.
"I guess when they had the discussion about Crown Land, and that discussion didn't go so well, they continued on with their idea," Mr Rolle said. "I don't know how they got where they ended up. I don't know how they got down to Black Point, and who convinced them to go there. I didn't know that they were able to engage people to the extent they did without having a concrete plan for it."
Mr Rolle suggested the Bahamas' reputation and tourism brand would suffer no long-term damage from the Fyre Festival debacle, given that it was entirely the organisers' fault.
"I think the Bahamas can recover from that," he told Tribune Business. "Everybody saw and placed the blame with the organisers. I don't know that this would have any long-term impact on the country if we just continue to demonstrate it was not the Government organising the event. It was a couple of individuals who were ill-prepared to do what they had committed to do."