By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government has made a $10m down payment to acquire the Grand Lucayan resort at a price tag of $65m and expects to complete the purchase from Hutchinson Whampoa within the next 30 days, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis confirmed yesterday.
He spoke in Grand Bahama after touring the resort and the Port Lucaya Marketplace where he spoke to concerned residents struggling to deal with the Lucayan strip’s reduced economic activity following the resort’s closure in 2016.
He also toured the near-deserted International Bazaar shopping area which he views as a cautionary tale of how the closure of a major hotel harms surrounding businesses.
He did not give much details about the purchase or specify the government’s plans for the three-hotel property, saying he will make a comprehensive communication when Parliament resumes after its summer break next month.
However, he said once the government’s acquisition is complete, a concessions package will be available to prospective buyers of the hotel, the terms of which will be more favourable to Bahamian investors than foreign ones.
He said the government plans to keep the 196-room Lighthouse Pointe open, which reopened in November 2016, and is considering re-opening the 400-room Memories property.
The latter property would require some renovations prior to reopening. Dr Minnis said the government will assess the costs of reopening it before making a decision.
The government is not considering re-opening the 500-room Breaker’s Cay.
Noting there is demand for additional rooms at the Grand Lucayan, Dr Minnis said: “I’ve been informed there are a lot of group bookings individuals are trying to bring forth. However, because of the large size of the groupings and the number of rooms, only 196 presently, those groupings are being denied. There are groupings that require 200, 300 visitors that want to utilise the hotel services but we don’t have the capacity but soon we’ll have the capacity to have an even greater impact on the Lucayan strip.”
Asked if the government is seeking a private sector operator to manage the hotels, which some observers believe is essential, Dr Minnis demurred. He suggested such matters will be determined by a newly formed committee tasked with examining all matters related to the resort.
“What the government would like to do is get in and out as soon as possible,” he said. “At present we are establishing a committee, a committee comprising of professionals that is chaired by (Hotel Corporation Chairman) Michael Scott, which would look and plan the way forward. That would not be done by me or politicians, but a professional group that are involved in businesses.”
To the Minnis administration, the need to buy the hotel despite considerable criticism was made clear through the experiences of workers on the Lucayan strip who expressed frustration with the “horrible” state of their businesses.
One vendor who spoke to Dr Minnis complained of struggling to make $50 a day.
“A lot of people in the Bahamas saying that’s the wrong move but we wearing the shoes, the hard shoes,” she said. “We are the ones that got to pay the bill and now that he doing that it gives us a chance to make money and to put people back to work so I thank God for the sale.”
The Minnis administration has not said whether any investors have expressed interest in purchasing the resort from the government, but he said he has no “intention to run a hotel.”
“It is our intention to save the jobs of the Grand Bahamians who work at this hotel, approximately 400 individuals and you can see the impact and you would’ve heard the straw vendors spoke about it,” he said. “You had the closure of this hotel. You have on this Lucayan strip the straw market, taxi drivers, the tour drivers, other commerce, the supermarkets and other industries. You would’ve heard them say and we do believe similarly that should this hotel close you’d have a devastating economic impact on Grand Bahama and under no circumstance can a government sit idly by and allow such a thing to happen.”
In a nod to potential Bahamian investors, Dr Minnis said the government is prepared to offer a sweet deal.
“We,” he said, “would like to see the hotel purchased from the government by Bahamians and I think the opportunity and the time has come for Bahamians not only to be given the concessions that are laid out in Heads of Agreement given to foreign investors, but time has come when government takes its own step to get them in the hotel business. Examples are out there throughout all the Caribbean when you look at ‘Butch’ Stewart (owner of the Sandals resort chain) and Jamaica and we would like to create our own ‘Butch’ Stewart right here.”
Dr Minnis ended his commentary with a warning to parliamentarians not to seize on the purchase of the Grand Lucayan resort to award political supporters.
“We are in a holding mode,” he said. “We are holding the hotel to preserve and protect the economy of Grand Bahama. Once a sale is available, this hotel goes as soon as possible. I do not want my Cabinet colleagues come forth with their lists saying ‘these are my ten constituents I need to be hired, these are my 20,’ – it won’t happen so you heard it through the horse’s mouth, it won’t happen. Don’t bring the list. If the management accepts the list, that manager will be fired, so know this Kwasi, know this Pintard. But as the Memories open you could bring the list because we’ll need more staff but the list should be fair.”
Last week, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said the government was forced to act to save the Grand Lucayan hotel properties because its owner Hutchison Whampoa had been threatening to shut down the property.
At the time, Mr D’Aguilar stressed the move was “the best of a bad choice” in an “emergency” situation.