By MORGAN ADDERLEY
Tribune Staff Reporter
PRIME Minister Dr Hubert Minnis criticised Pineridge MP Frederick McAlpine for the latter's criticism of the government's purchase of the Grand Lucayan resort, accusing Mr McAlpine of wanting the island to "suffer".
His comments came during a town hall meeting in Cabbage Hill, Crooked Island, where Dr Minnis again defended the purchase of the property in Grand Bahama by highlighting the resort's importance to the island's economy and underscoring the "symbiotic relationship" between cruise ships and the hotel.
Dr Minnis also rehashed the extraordinary concessions former potential buyer the Wynn Group was requesting, which contributed to the government walking away from that proposal.
"There (has) been a lot of talk recently about us purchasing the Grand Lucayan," Dr Minnis said. "And it's essential for you to understand why.
"If you go back historically… the Royal Oasis was doing very well and the International Bazaar was doing well. The Royal Oasis subsequently closed down… the government did not intervene. As a result of that, all the shopping areas [in the vicinity] that depended on the hotel subsequently closed."
That property sustained severe damage in 2004 following Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Its subsequent closure resulted in the loss of more than 1,500 jobs in Freeport and also affected many nearby businesses, including the International Bazaar and the Straw Market.
Dr Minnis noted when the bazaar closed down, the surrounding area became a "ghost town". He said people lost their jobs and many had to migrate to other islands. Such social and economic upheaval "increased the strain" on Social Services, he added.
The prime minister said the Lucaya hotel plays an "important role" to Grand Bahama, though it only employs 400; noting that when the three hotels on the strip were open, they were employing more than 1,200.
Dr Minnis also noted the resort's importance to the cruise industry, highlighting that Grand Bahama offers a "different type of sale package" for cruise ships. Unlike most destinations where cruise visitors are day trippers, in Grand Bahama these visitors can spend the night.
"The cruises that arrive in Grand Bahama, they are connected to the Our Lucaya hotel, and their guests remain in the hotel overnight and they would leave the following day," Dr Minnis said.
"So it's a symbiotic relationship between the cruise ship and the hotel," he said, noting that if the hotel closes, the cruises will leave and jobs reliant on both of them will be lost.
The prime minister took a swipe at Mr McAlpine, who has critiqued the purchase. "So I ask you, here today in Crooked Island: were we wrong in purchasing that hotel to save some of your brothers and sisters in Grand Bahama? Let Nassau hear you. Let McAlpine hear you, who thought it was wrong.
"Let McAlpine hear you -- one who live in Grand Bahama, want the entire Grand Bahama to suffer. I could not believe what I heard. Everybody gat to live. Because today it's Grand Bahama, tomorrow it's Crooked Island. And we'll do the same thing for you. We will not allow you to sink or suffer."
Dr Minnis referred to how negotiations with the Wynn Group broke down, pointing to the company's extraordinary concessions requests.
He said besides the $65m purchase price, the Wynn Group made last-minute requests for "additional concessions that were outside of the law".
These included a 20 percent electricity discount rate, 420 "unfettered work permits," and no casino taxes.
"They also wanted us to guarantee that if they suffered any loss -- in other words, if the hotel at the end of the year had a $5m loss, we the government must pay them that $5m, so they [would] suffer no loss.
"In addition to that, we must give them 7 percent interest. In other words, in addition to absorbing their loss, they must receive a 7 percent return."
The company also wanted a commitment from the government to either buying or building a new airport within two years.
While Dr Minnis reiterated that "under no circumstances" should governments be in the business of buying hotels, the administration could not let the hotel close. "But we made a commitment that we get out of that business as soon as possible," he added, noting that already "six groupings" have expressed interest in the hotel.
"If there was any inclination to do what that private entity was asking, then I would do it. A Bahamian I would do that for. It's your money. And you would not object to another Bahamian taking all the benefits so that we all can benefit. Not for it to be repatriated out of the country."