By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
THE Grand Lucayan's prospective buyer must next week confirm the deal will close imminently to rescue Freeport "from the intensive care unit", a prominent attorney warned yesterday.
Carey Leonard told Tribune Business that the Wynn Group's chief executive must use next week's Grand Bahama Business Outlook address to reassure businesses and residents that all is well given renewed uncertainty over the acquisition's status.
Paul Wynn is listed among the speakers for the annual conference, and the Callenders & Co attorney warned that doubts would linger until his group demonstrated or convinced otherwise, adding: "Seeing is believing."
Mr Leonard said many companies in the Port Lucaya Marketplace were "hanging on by a thread", and needed concrete progress at the Grand Lucayan to give them enough hope to remain open and not lay-off staff. The former Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) attorney warned that it would be "absolutely disastrous" if there was no positive progress on the resort's sale and re-opening within the next two to three months, as he took a swipe at his former employer and Hutchison Whampoa for failing to live up to their obligations to promote and develop Freeport.
"Talking to the shop owners, they're hanging on by a thread and are really desperate to see something come through," Mr Leonard told Tribune Business of Port Lucaya Marketplace's retail and restaurant tenants.
"One of them said he'd close the doors, still have an obligation to pay the rent, lay off his staff and hope the hotel opens up again so he can re-open and re-employ them. He just can't afford to keep the place.
"I think it's going to be disastrous if we don't have something positive within the next two to three months. It's going to be absolutely disastrous. Businesses will make plans and continue if they can see something concrete coming down the road."
The Prime Minister, addressing the House of Assembly just after Mr Leonard spoke to this newspaper, offered little new on the Grand Lucayan apart from the vague statement that everything remains "on track".
"We are on track to approving the sale and reopening of the Grand Lucayan, which will significantly improve the economy of Grand Bahama," Dr Hubert Minnis said.
However, this provided no more encouragement than his recent national address, in which he warned that the sale of Freeport's 'anchor resort' property is "far from completed".
"Although this transaction is far from completed, it would not be an exaggeration to say that we will have accomplished in a few months what was not done in a decade," Dr Minnis said just last month. "This year, we intend to complete the sale of the Grand Lucayan and Memories property."
The Prime Minister's House of Assembly address yesterday gave the impression that the Grand Lucayan deal may now be the third significant economic event to occur for Grand Bahama, having slipped behind both the $4 billion Oban Energies project (see other article on Page 1B) and Skyline Investments' $2.56 billion redevelopment of the former Ginn project in West End.
Dr Minnis said the latter purchase, and development, had been 'approved in principle' by the Government, but the benefits from this and Oban's oil refinery/storage facility will likely only truly be felt in around two years' time.
The Grand Lucayan, with its Memories property said to be able to open within two months of deal closing, would have a more immediate impact on a shrinking city and economy. Its closure following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 cost Grand Bahama some 1,000 direct jobs, plus 1,100 rooms that amount to 59 per cent of the island's inventory.
Mr Leonard yesterday conceded that the Oban and West End projects "may very well save the Port area from economic disaster", as both would require goods, building materials and workers from Freeport.
"The health of Freeport, the Port area, is in critical condition," he told Tribune Business. "It's basically in the Intensive Care Unit. I'd gone out to a play, and where do you go for dinner. Ten years ago you had an abundance of places to go, and now we're down to a handful of restaurants, especially in the downtown area.
"I'm extremely concerned about it, extremely concerned. Government has been saying they're working on it, working on it, working on it. This is nine months down the road, and I see no progress."
The promotional materials from Grand Bahama Business Outlook organisers, The Counsellors, show Mr Wynn among the speaker line-up, and Mr Leonard said he needed to do everything possible to convince Freeport that the Grand Lucayan purchase was progressing.
"I sure hope he's going to reveal to us all that he's found the money, come to an agreement with everybody and it's starting in a couple of weeks' time," Mr Leonard told Tribune Business.
"If he does that we will all breathe a huge sigh of relief. Seeing is believing, and I don't see it yet."
The Callenders & Co attorney added that both the GBPA and Hutchison Whampoa, as Freeport's largest investor and the former's joint venture partner, had to accept much of the blame for Freeport's decline.
"The GBPA's obligation is to promote business in the Port area and bring business here," Mr Leonard said. "Quite frankly, I don't think they know what to so. The silence coming from the Port Authority building is bad."
He argued that Hutchison Whampoa also had to accept responsibility, as it had done little to develop the Grand Bahama Development Company's (Devco) 70,000-acre landholdings despite possessing significant financial resources to do so.
"Hutchison owns 50 per cent of Devco and clearly nothing has been done to promote development on all that property," Mr Leonard told Tribune Business. "They have the money and means to make something happen, and have chosen not to do so.
"They are as guilty as anybody, if not more, because they actually have the ability to do something and have failed miserably to all our cost. They're making money hand over fist. This one may not be making money, but you'd have thought with all their genius they would find a way to spend $100 million in two to three years to create something exciting to make their money back.
"They're [Hutchison] not driving business to come here; they're inhibiting business coming here," Mr Leonard continued. "Whenever there's a land transaction with Hutchison/Devco involved, my experience is that they'll negotiate you to the point where you give up because you become exasperated.
"If anyone could kick this economy into gear it's Hutchison, and they've done nothing. That's why the Government should have no qualms about doing a compulsory acquisition of that hotel.... Nothing is happening in Freeport, and the 'pink building', Hutchison and the Government, they're responsible for the failure."