By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A $580m mixed-use South Abaco resort investment is pledging to create 600 full-time jobs and inject $2bn into the area's struggling economy during its first 10 years in operation.
A four-page booklet produced by Tyrsoz Family Holdings Ltd, which has been obtained by Tribune Business, details plans to construct multiple hotels, residential homes, a 136-slip marina, golf course, water park, nature preserve and other amenities spread across almost 1,100 acres that is split into two separate land parcels.
The two parcels are said to be "under contract" for purchase by the project's owners, who are not identified in the report. The principal figure named is Ronnie Ben-Zur, the development manager, who is chief executive of French Quarter Holdings, a hospitality development company that specialises in acquiring distressed and undervalued resort properties it then renovates, turns around and prepares for onward sale.
Mr Ben-Zur was yesterday said to be travelling and unavailable for comment when Tribune Business reached out to him, but this newspaper understands he visited south Abaco last week to meet with area residents, environmental activists and other stakeholders to unveil and discuss his plans.
While the $580m proposal was said to be in its "early days" in terms of obtaining the necessary government permits and Heads of Agreement, Tribune Business was told that Mr Ben-Zur wanted to "take the temperature" of south Abaco "and find out if the community wanted it" after the project was revealed by the Prime Minister in a recent national address.
One contact, speaking on condition of anonymity, told this newspaper that the presentations given by Mr Ben-Zur were "hugely successful" and there appeared to be no overt opposition or resistance to the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project. It is projecting to create 927 jobs for locals at the peak of construction, with the average number of hires pegged at 618.
However, Tribune Business was yesterday informed that concerns are indeed building among environmental activists due to both the size and location of the proposed development, which is in close proximity to the 20,500-acre Abaco National Forest and the prime breeding ground for the endangered Abaco parrot.
The project's two potential real estate holdings include the 620-acre Lantern Head parcel, which according to renderings seen by Tribune Business appears to be especially close to the National Forest. The other 467-acre tract, called "South-West Point", lies further south on Abaco's south-western tip.
Much of Tyrsoz Family Holdings' booklet was devoted to reassuring Bahamians of the company's environmental sensitivities. It is promising to create "a world-class, environmentally-sustainable luxury island retreat with local appeal via the participating community while, importantly, maintaining South Abaco’s natural charm".
"Tyrsoz Family Holdings Ltd’s financial advisor and real estate developer, Ra’anan ‘Ronnie’ Ben-Zur, is proposing a low-density, ultra-luxury hotel, residential and marina development for the secluded undeveloped coastal region of South Abaco, Bahamas," the booklet added.
"Based on sound economical footing, yet designed with great care and responsibility to the environment and original nature of the area, it is intended to provide significant ongoing and expanding employment opportunities for the community and important infrastructure improvements for the benefit of residents and visitors alike."
The Lantern Head site, which is closest to the National Forest, will become "a very low density, private, secluded community" with an "ultra-luxury hotel of 50 large suites with private pools" acting as its anchor.
A golf course and tennis courts, together with 76 residential home lots sized at one acre or more, will also feature amid the developer's ambition to make the hotel rank in "the top hotels of the world" list.
The South-West Point site, meanwhile, is being targeted for the 136-slip marina and two hotels - one a 75-room "luxury" resort, the other a 100-room "standard" property. A water park, 80 residential lots, marina village and artists' and cultural village are also included in the plans.
"It will practically be the first meaningful super yachts marina in North America," Tyrsoz Family Holdings said. "The marina has been sited and designed to minimise impacts to marine resources to the furthest extent practicable.
"It will be located on the western shore near the southern side of the island to take advantage of the naturally occurring deep waters of the existing near-shore channel, and utilises the calm waters off the western coast of the island for safe navigation.
"Adjacent to the marina will be a high-end Marina Village with yacht, fishing and scuba charter offices, boutique shops, restaurants and bars, and all other necessities to ensure a vibrant marina atmosphere."
Tyrsoz Family Holdings' booklet said it had secured "two world-class luxury brands" to brand and manage the resort properties, although it did not name them. It added that the project was targeting "sophisticated", luxury travellers who were looking for authentic experiences and wanted to mix with local communities, cultures and customs as they unwind on vacation.
The rest of the developer's publication was devoted to explaining the benefits it will provide for south Abaco's community, which include a $9m "Entrepreneurs Fund" to provide Bahamians with the necessary access to capital for the creation of small businesses that will support and feed off the project.
"Local involvement is central to the success of the proposed venture, as currently there are no tourism related attractions in the area," it said. "With nature billed as one of the top attractions to visitors, Ronnie realised that he must encourage the local communities to join him in entertaining guests and will establish, once the project commences, a $9m Entrepreneurial Fund for local businesses to get started in lines of work that will attract overseas visitors.
"Also, to help stimulate financially the local economy, rent-free commercial spaces will initially be provided for Bahamians in the proposed Marina Village as well as a free Artists Village where crafts people can live, work, sell their goods and give lessons."
Tyrsoz Family Holdings is also promising "to donate back to the Government" some of the land it is aiming to acquire. Among its other community-focused pledges are financial support for the Bahamas National Trust's (BNT) National Park masterplan; a nature preserve; restoration of the "iconic" Hole in the Wall Lighthouse under BNT supervision; and access to the beaches on the southern shore.
A medical centre at South-West Point; expansion and improvement of the Great Abaco Road; and upgrading of the nearby airport into Sandy Point International for private aviation use only are also on the developer's list.
Tyrsoz Family Holdings' attorney is understood to be former Cabinet minister, Ryan Pinder, at Graham, Thompson & Company. He is handling the government approvals process, while Sean B. Callender & Co is dealing with the land acquisition.
But Tribune Business sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have raised concerns that the scale of the proposed project appears to be disproportionate to the location it is targeting. They suggested it revives memories of the so-called "anchor project" strategy employed by the Ingraham and Christie administrations, which - at best - produced somewhat mixed results.
Developers of Family Island "greenfield" sites have often been caught unprepared by the huge financial sums they have to invest in equipping their projects with the necessary supporting infrastructure, with the scale of such outlays frequently making it difficult to achieve profitability and investment return targets.
Mr Ben-Zur's career has largely involved transforming existing resort properties, such as the Radisson at JFK Airport and multiple hotels in Atlanta and Florida, rather than the "greenfield" property earmarked for the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project.
The unspoilt, pristine nature of the development site is bound to arouse concerns from environmental activists and others. Previous investment proposals targeted at the south Abaco area, albeit from groups that lacked Mr Ben-Zur's track record, received a frosty reception and went nowhere.
However, south Abaco's economy and its people badly need an economic stimulus. Much of Abaco's wealth and development is largely concentrated in the northern end of the island around Marsh Harbour and the main population centres, and south Abaco has largely been forgotten and left out.
Many had looked to Schooner Bay to be the 'anchor' for south Abaco, but that project has come to a standstill - even regressed - after its development partner, Orjan Lindroth, left and placed it solely under the control of US investor, David Huber.