By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
An Eleuthera non-profit yesterday argued that Disney's Lighthouse Point plans are "second best" to its proposal that retains "100 percent of the land and profits for Bahamians".
Shaun Ingraham, the One Eleuthera Foundation's (OEF) chief executive, told Tribune Business that it was prepared itself to raise the financing necessary for the Government to acquire the 700-acre property at South Eleuthera's tip in the public interest.
Emphasising that there would be no cost to the Public Treasury, Mr Ingraham called for Lighthouse Point to be developed along similar lines to the Clifton Heritage Park's creation, where the Government acquired private property to ensure a historical site remained accessible for future Bahamian generations.
He revealed that the Foundation planned to place Lighthouse Point's ownership into a trust, where it would be held "in perpetuity" for the benefit of all Bahamians - especially south Eleutherans. A separate company would be established to develop the property into an eco-tourism and research destination, with Bahamians given an opportunity to acquire shares in it.
Mr Ingraham then expressed scepticism over Disney's pledge that Bahamians will still have "full access" to Lighthouse Point under its "beach destination" proposal, arguing that this would likely conflict with international port security regulations imposed following the September 11 terror attacks.
While conceding that Disney was the leading cruise line on environmental protection, conservation and corporate responsibility, the Foundation's chief executive said it would be impossible for the two parties to work together "because our business models are so different".
"The main thing is Bahamian ownership of the land; all 700 acres," Mr Ingraham told Tribune Business, comparing the competing Disney and Foundation proposals. "They're saying they're giving back 170 acres; we're saying we're giving back 700 acres.
"All profits from a non-profit organisation go back to the people. A trust would be set up to hold the land, and a separate company set up to develop the land. Bahamians would be able to buy shares in that company.
"One Eleuthera Foundation is calling for 100 percent of the land to be returned to Bahamians, and 100 percent of the profits to stay in The Bahamas. That's the two big takeaways for us. It's about ownership, and where the profits are going. Disney's plan is second best, third best to where we want to go."
Disney's big advantage, though, is that it has an existing sales agreement on place with Lighthouse Point's owner to acquire the 700-acre property, while the One Eleuthera Foundation does not. For the latter to succeed, the Government would have to turn down the cruise line's project and likely acquire the property itself to protect it from other potential developers.'
Mr Ingraham yesterday promised that this will not cost taxpayers a single cent, as the Foundation would seek to raise the necessary financing itself from wealthy philanthropists and donors, some of whom are Eleuthera-based second home owners and investors.
"We'd be prepared to raise the funding so it doesn't come out of the Public Treasury," he told Tribune Business. "The One Eleuthera Foundation is prepared to raise the money to do that.
"We could the land into a public trust that is held in perpetuity for the Bahamian people, so that all the residual profits go back into the community to build schools, hospitals and the rest, and go into public infrastructure.
"With Disney, they will take the profits and give it straight back to their shareholders. Heaven forbid if this port does not work out; they could just abandon it. If we're ever going to own our own economy this type of jewel property needs to be opened up for Bahamians to leverage."
Mr Ingraham said Lighthouse Point's fate had been a concern to the Foundation for the past decade, but its own efforts to acquire the site had been rebuffed. He identified the current owners, and sellers to Disney, as The Related Group, headed by billionaire Jorge Perez.
Research by Tribune Business uncovered a 2008 press release announcing a joint venture between The Related Group and Meritage Hospitality Group for an 884-acre site in south Eleuthera that was previously owned by Bahamian businessman, George Baker.
The release, complete with a photo with then-prime minister, Hubert Ingraham, said "approval in principle" had been given by the Government for their plans, which were likely ended by the 'credit crunch' and subsequent global recession.
"We've been at this for 10 years," the Foundation's Mr Ingraham said yesterday. "We made an offer six to seven years ago when it was under Coldwell Banker Lightbourn Realty. For the last four years it was taken over by HG Christie.
"Since then we've had an additional supporter, a philanthropist, come on board to give us the financial backing we need. At one point they did reach out to the vendor but it was not received positively."
Mr Ingraham added that Disney had reached out to the Foundation several months ago over its plans, but then "withdrew the offer". He said it had been working through the US Embassy in Nassau to arrange meetings with key Eleuthera stakeholders, including the Bahamas National Trust, the Island School and his chairman, Alfred Sears QC.
Disney has pledged that Lighthouse Point will remain fully open to all Bahamians under its ownership, with the lighthouse and southern tip off-limits to both its guests and further development. The cruise line also told Tribune Business this week that its passengers will be free to explore off-property, and undertake historical, cultural and adventure tours on Eleuthera.
These promises suggest a Disney-controlled Lighthouse Point will be completely unlike the typical exclusive private island cruise port, but Mr Ingraham expressed scepticism as to whether it will fulfill such pledges.
"They're saying they're going to leave it open, but with the International Ship and Port Security (ISPS) regulations, there's no way they're going to be able to do that," he told Tribune Business. "Later on, we're afraid they're going to say: 'Oops, we made a mistake. We can't do that."
Mr Ingraham was similarly unconvinced about Disney's pledge to work with Eleuthera-based tour operators and attraction providers, suggesting few were in position to respond. He expressed fears that such contracts, and many of the 150 permanent jobs touted by the cruise line, would go to Nassau-based operator and workers as well as expatriates.
"There's very few tour operators in south Eleuthera to carry that capacity," he told Tribune Business. "The challenge is that everything is under-resourced. You have one or two companies. How are they going to upgrade their fleet, their vehicles, and purchase the necessary insurance.
"They make it sound easy, but this area has been in recession for 40 years. These are not very sophisticated people able to go to the bank and get a loan to start a tour company. The people have to grow with the economy. The people and economy have to grow together."
Mr Ingraham said Eleuthera would lose its "second most visited spot" after the Glass Window Bridge should Lighthouse Point become non-accessible to Bahamians. He added that the One Eleuthera Foundation's rival proposal called for the area surrounding the property to be divided into three zones, with a $14m investment earmarked to strengthen nearby communities such as Bannerman Town.
The second "zone" will be economic, focused on eco-tourism and research centres, which Mr Ingraham said will create "200 jobs alone". He added: "What we're saying to the Government is that this is a good opportunity, if they're serious, to switch the economy to a more 'heads in beds', more sustainable tourism model.
"The Government has to zone the property for sustainable development, and we want to be able to go back like they did with the Clifton Heritage site. The Government purchased it, as it was so sensitive, and we're looking at a similar thing where the owner is compensated for fair market value."