By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Disney Cruise Line's president yesterday admitted it had been "bothered" by inaccurate criticism of its Lighthouse Point plans, which created fears of brand and "reputation" damage.
Jeff Vahle, in an interview with Tribune Business, said the "only accurate information put out early" was its interest in acquiring the 700-acre, privately-owned property at the tip of South Eleuthera.
He effectively suggested, though, that the Government bore significant responsibility for the ongoing controversy surrounding the project because it had told Disney not to publicly release details until it gave the go-ahead.
Asked by Tribune Business whether Disney regretted the "information vacuum" that had been allowed to develop around its Lighthouse Point intentions, and not engaging with south Eleuthera residents and other stakeholders earlier, Mr Vahle said the cruise line had wanted to "honour" the approvals process set out by the Government.
"The only accurate information put out early was we were interested," the Disney Cruise Line chief replied. "Other than that, it was not very accurate. We were trying to honour the Government process and move through that, and not go public until the Government said go public. We've been honouring that process.
"We don't like that the vacuum was filled by information that could have caused damage to our brand. It does bother us, as we work so hard and value our reputation to deeply."
Disney Cruise Line, starting with an article published in the major newspapers on Monday, has this week launched a major public relations campaign to combat the ongoing criticism and concerns being voiced by environmental activists, some south Eleuthera residents and others.
It also faces competing proposals for Lighthouse Point that have been presented by the One Eleuthera Foundation, which is promising "responsible development" and the creation of 190 jobs - more than the 150 permanent posts being offered by the cruise line.
Many of the concerns have focused on the perception that Disney will follow the Bahamian model established by other cruise lines and turn Lighthouse Point - including the lighthouse and pristine beaches - into a private, exclusive destination for its passengers, thereby depriving locals of access to more of their land and birthright.
Disney, in a presentation on its Lighthouse Point plans, refutes such fears by pledging that "the entire property will be available to Bahamians every day" once its development is constructed.
This promise that was reiterated by Mr Vahle to Tribune Business yesterday, who said Bahamians would continue to have access "to the full property". He acknowledged that this would have to be balanced with compliance with global International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) standards, but suggested that the only facilities Bahamians might not visit will be the maintenance and "back of house" area located near the northern boundary.
'Save Lighthouse Point' petitions have already attracted up to 30,000 signatures, and Mr Vahle acknowledged Bahamian fears that Disney's project - and the nature of private cruise destinations - would deny them future access to the property.
"We do understand these concerns, especially when it [the property] is part of an island like this," he added. "We're committed to Bahamians, Eluetherans, having full access to the property. We'll continue to work with the community.'
Disney's project presentation says it "has support from many residents in Eleuthera who believe new, high-quality jobs are needed there, and they trust is to develop Lighthouse Point responsibly.
"We have adjusted our plan significantly over the past few months based on feedback from the Government, local residents, community organisations and others, and will continue to evolve our plan based on these important conversations," it added.
"We understand how important access to the site is to Bahamians, and our plan includes full access to the site every day."
Mr Vahle said his visits to Eleuthera had caused no change to Disney's assessment, given that it has long been acknowledged that the island's south needs significant job-creating investment to revive the economy and reverse population loss to New Providence and other islands as residents move in search of work.
Yet he acknowledged that many residents had been unaware of its precise intentions due to the absence of official information put out by the cruise line.
"I went there two weeks ago with our vice-president of animal programmes and conservation, spending a few days in south Eleuthera and central Eleuthera," Mr Vahle told Tribune Business.
"We had that conversation; we had ongoing conversations with people who support the project. We've met with hundreds of people. Anyone we had a conversation with about the project said: 'I genuinely didn't know that was going on with the project; I'd heard something different'. It accomplishes what people have been trying to get done on this piece of land for so long."
Mr Vahle's confirmation that Disney Cruise Line was told not to go public until the Government gave the go-ahead sounds eerily familiar to what previously played out at Baker's Bay, BEC's Wilson City power plant and Resorts World's Bimini cruise pier, and suggests little has changed from the former Christie administration.
Both the Baker's Bay and Resorts World developers were told that the timing and nature of public consultation would be determined by the then-government, and it appears the Minnis administration has continued this practice with Lighthouse Point. Disney yesterday confirmed its purchase of the property has been in the works since October/November 2017.
The Prime Minister last week argued during the Grand Lucayan debate that the Government's negotiations with investors needed commercial confidentiality, but the experience of past Judicial Review challenges has shown the lack of transparency surrounding major projects inevitably backfires and creates more problems for legitimate developers than it solves.
In Disney Cruise Line's case, the resulting information vacuum was filed with a mixture of inaccurate speculation, fears and genuine concerns, all of which threatened to turn south Eleuthera residents against its plans before they had a chance to be heard.
And the Bahamian judicial system, all the way up to the Privy Council, has upheld the "legitimate expectation" of local communities and affected stakeholders to be consulted on major investment-related decisions that will impact them. "Fairness", the courts have found, requires "adequate and meaningful" consultation to be undertaken by developers and the Government.
The Lighthouse Point controversy has again brought this issue to the forefront, together with questions over whether Nassau should be dictating and imposing its development vision on the Family Islands rather than allowing local communities and organisations such as One Eleuthera to determine this themselves.
This is especially since local government in the Family Islands, in the form of district councils, are nominally responsible for planning approvals rather than the central government.