By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Disney's Lighthouse Point rival yesterday said "nothing is off the table" over the rejection of its "game changing" proposal, which it argued had been "misunderstood" by many in Eleuthera.
Shaun Ingraham, chief executive of the One Eleuthera Foundation (OEF), told Tribune Business that a Judicial Review-style legal challenge to the Government's decision to approve Disney Cruise Line's project remained an option for Lighthouse Point Partners (LPP) given its continued belief that the process was "flawed".
He and One Eleuthera, who are members of the LPP consortium, argued that the group's stopover-based, eco-tourism vision would have "stimulated the whole island" whereas the impact for Disney's cruise passenger "beach break" destination would largely be restricted to the south.
Suggesting that Bahamians, and especially South Eleuthera residents, had not been given sufficient opportunity to compare and "interrogate" Disney and LPP's respective plans for the 700-acre site on the island's southern tip, Mr Ingraham said the controversy caused by the competing proposals further exposed the need for a national economic development plan.
"We are still reviewing all our options now. We haven't taken anything off the table in terms of how we respond," Mr Ingraham said of the LPP group's position. "We're still having conversations with the partners about how we go forward this week.
"At the weekend everyone was taking a breather. We were reviewing all our options ahead, as we do feel the process was flawed and people were deprived of the opportunity to hear our plans and proposal, and interrogate Disney's plan. I don't know if people thought through Disney's plan, interrogated it, and looked at what they're asking for."
Mr Ingraham confirmed that a potential Judicial Review challenge to the perceived lack of proper public consultation by the Government over Disney's proposal was among the options that are "not off the table", with LPP's decision on its next moves likely to be taken before the week ends.
Such a challenge is likely the only way the Government's Disney approval can be overturned, with the LPP consortium disputing assertions by senior administration officials that the Town Hall meeting in south Eleuthera that was attended by the Prime Minister satisfied the requirement to conduct meaningful consultation with affected parties and local stakeholders.
Eric Carey, the Bahamas National Trust's (BNT) executive director, previously said the organisation and other LPP members "absolutely do not accept that meeting" amounted to the required consultation established by recent Bahamian court verdicts.
Numerous court rulings over developments such as Baker's Bay at Guana Cay, Abaco, and the Bahamas Electricity Corporation (BEC) power plant at Wilson City, have established as legal precedent the need to meaningfully consult with affected parties and stakeholders over such projects.
But, the Government, in confirming its decision to go with Disney, suggested that LPP and its members had also spoken of their plans at community meetings in south Eleuthera. It also used the Town Hall meeting's outcome, and opinion polls by the Public Domain research firm, both of which purportedly showed many Bahamians were in favour of the cruise line's plan, to justify its decision.
Mr Ingraham, meanwhile, argued that LPP's detailed plans for Lighthouse Point, released publicly just one week before the Minnis Cabinet made its decision to give Disney's proposal the go-ahead, had not been fully digested or understood by many Bahamians.
"We still think our plan was misunderstood, and people didn't fully read it," Mr Ingraham told Tribune Business. "There's an old saying that if you want to hide something from Bahamians, put it in writing. Our challenge has been getting our model out there.
"They didn't understand it was a game changer for how we do business in the country; Bahamian ownership, the property held in trust for the Bahamian people in perpetuity, and whatever ultimate benefits were generated would go to the Bahamian people. All employment would have been Bahamian."
Members of the LPP consortium previously said economic projections released by the two sides showed their proposal for an eco-tourism, research and national park-centred development would have "significantly more impact" than Disney's "beach break" experience for its passengers.
The group, whose members include some of Eleuthera's most prominent institutions, such as the Leon Levy Foundation, One Eleuthera Foundation, The Island School and Cape Eleuthera Institute, as well as the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), produced statistics purporting to show the wages generated by its proposal would have been 146 percent higher on average than those offered by Disney.
It placed particular emphasis on the 190 permanent jobs promised by its proposal exceeding the 120-150 pledged by Disney, with "wages estimated to be 270 percent higher than the minimum wage for the permanent, high calibre seven-day-a-week jobs, many of them managerial and professional positions".
"Our plan was to stimulate the entire island; that's what people missed out on," Mr Ingraham told Tribune Business yesterday. "To stimulate the economy you need people moving, shopping, driving, renting vehicles. That's what people didn't understand about the plan. It was not just for south Eleuthera; it was for all Eleuthera, from north to south."
Emphasising that the LPP group had not asked for the tax breaks and investment incentives typically sought by foreign investors, Mr Ingraham said its proposed project was unlikely to work at another location due to the difficulty of matching Lighthouse Point's qualities.
"You can't take the Island House and just put it anywhere," he explained. "It has to be somewhere special to draw people. We just felt like we had the right mix of ingredients." Apart from the Holowesko family -owned Island House, the LPP group had also produced letters from the Bahamas Boutique Hotels Group (owner of Hope Town Harbour Lodge) and Benjamin Simmons' Little Island Group confirming their interest in partnering with the project to develop the eco-tourism component.
The One Eleuthera Foundation chief also responded to criticisms frequently voiced by Disney's supporters that it lacked the financing necessary to both purchase the 700-acre site, said to be valued at between $20-$25m, and then fulfill its own $23m development vision.
Mr Ingraham reiterated LPP's 42-page proposal showed that US-based donors had already raised $6.463m for the cause, while the Leon Levy Foundation - an entity with more than $500m in assets - had committed to financing the land acquisition.
Disney, though, held one distinct advantage in that it held a signed sales agreement with the seller, The Related Group and Meritage Hospitality, to purchase the 700-acre Lighthouse Point site. The Government indicated this weighed significantly in its decision to approve the cruise line's proposal.
LPP has also come under criticism for failing to act sooner, given the knowledge that Lighthouse Point was for sale and a prime development site, with Disney's advocates arguing it had waited until the last minute to go public with its proposal.
This, they suggested, raised further doubts about LPP's credibility, but Mr Ingraham yesterday said "the record" showed such assertions had no merit since the group's members had been talking to successive governments about Lighthouse Point's fate since 2008-2009 when The Related Group's long-abandoned plans first surfaced.
"The Shared Vision document came out in 2010, which outlined ideas for the property in a general way. It's not like we've been sitting there," the One Eleuthera chief said. "We have been meeting, pushing. It takes time to get everything in place."
He conceded, though, that it was only after the Leon Levy Foundation "joined the fight in the last couple of years" that LPP gained the financial firepower to make firm offers to acquire Lighthouse Point.