By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A leading Andros-based developer has emerged as the likely buyer of the last Hotel Corporation-owned resort, a Cabinet minister saying yesterday: “The quicker a deal happens the better.”
Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business he was ecstatic that Kamalame Cay’s principal, Brian Hew, was “doing due diligence” and negotiating to acquire the Lighthouse Yacht Club and Marina.
He added that Mr Hew’s “wealth of experience” in developing an ultra luxury private island destination just a mile from Andros’ Great Barrier Reef gave the government confidence that he could do likewise in transforming the still-closed Lighthouse Club into a sustainable, attractive product.
The resort has been shuttered since incurring significant damage from Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, with Mr D’Aguilar disclosing that his “life’s mission” since becoming tourism minister has been to secure the government’s exit from hotel industry ownership.
Mr Hew’s emergence as frontrunner to purchase the Lighthouse Club comes after an earlier deal headed by a Bahamian entrepreneur appears to have stalled. Local businessman Burton Rodgers, and a group featuring some of the investors who worked with him to purchase Exuma’s Club Peace & Plenty hotel, had previously been identified as the preferred buyer.
Confirming these developments yesterday, Mr D’Aguilar said the government’s departure from the hotel business could not come soon enough given that it had “never enjoyed any success” in the sector.
“You’re right,” Mr D’Aguilar responded, when contacted by Tribune Business. “The Burton Rodgers deal has fallen through, and all I would say is that Brian Hew is looking seriously at it and he obviously comes to the table with a wealth of experience in operating a hotel in Andros.
“He would be wonderfully positioned to successfully operate a hotel property in Andros. Not only have his properties been successful, but he’s won endless awards for a fantastic property and created opportunities for Bahamians. These are very high-end customers [at Kamalame Cay] that are economically impactful on Andros.
“I’m very excited that he’s interested and we’ll see where it takes us. As far as I’m aware it’s still at the Hotel Corporation level. He’s doing his due diligence and hasn’t gotten into the details yet. I’m not quite sure where in the process he is. He’s still, I think, contemplating what the details of the deal look like and, because it’s owned by the Hotel Corporation, it has to go to the Government for final approval.”
Kamalame Cay is a family run, high-end boutique resort featuring private villas and beach houses in a 96-acre setting. It consistently attracts both high-end clients and positive reviews from the global travel media, and provides multiple amenities and experiences in close proximity to the Great Barrier Reef.
“When Brian Hew puts his mind to it, with the learning curve he has gone through in building a successful hotel in Andros he has a very high chance of developing and creating a successful project there [at the Lighthouse Club], so I’m excited he’s interested in it,” Mr D’Aguilar reiterated to Tribune Business.
The Lighthouse Club’s sale will complete the Government’s 27-year bid to completely exit ownership involvement in the Bahamian hotel industry, the Grand Lucayan situation excepted, and even here it is seeking to close a sale to the ITM Group/Royal Caribbean joint venture.
“That’s been my life’s mission since I took over as minister of tourism and aviation,” Mr D’Aguilar told this newspaper. “I fundamentally don’t believe the Government of The Bahamas should be in the business of owning and operating hotels.
“We’ve never had any success with that. The quicker this can happen the better. We don’t have the financial resources and wherewithal to be the primary shareholder, owner and operator, so it’s better to put it into the hands of people know how to do that because that way is most economically impactful and empowers Bahamians. We’re all about giving entrepreneurial opportunities.”
Numerous attempts to sell the 20-room Lighthouse Club, whose Fresh Creek-based amenities include a 30-slip marina, pool and tennis court on 11 acres of beachfront land, have been made before with little success.
The last Ingraham administration was trying to negotiate a sale to Illinois-based Scheck Industries when it left office in May 2012, in a bid to end financial bleeding that was costing the Hotel Corporation some $500,000 per year.
Under the proposed agreement with the then-government, land and investment incentives would have been released to Scheck in accordance with “timeframes and milestones for development”.
The company had proposed a $15m investment in the first phase, and construction and full-time jobs of 50-plus, but nothing further was heard of Scheck once the last Christie administration took office.
Tribune Business then revealed in 2014 that rival Bahamian-led bids with strong Andros connections were battling to acquire the Lighthouse Club. Prescott Smith, owner of Stafford Creek Lodge, confirmed he was heading one group, while Vanlock Fowler, owner of Nassau-based All Purpose Steel Company, confirmed he was part of another.
Again, though, no deal was closed. The property remains shuttered, with the Matthew-related damage not repaired, resulting in the Minnis administration offering the assets on an ‘as is’ basis when it began marketing the Lighthouse Club for sale in September 2017.
Frederick McAlpine, the former Hotel Corporation chairman, told Tribune Business last year it had managed to save taxpayers some $250,000 by terminating the Lighthouse Club’s 20-plus staff and paying them due severance after the Christie administration kept them on despite the hotel being closed.
Mr Rodgers could not be reached for comment yesterday on the fate of his proposal, despite Tribune Business leaving a message on his cell phone. Michael Scott, the Hotel Corporation’s chairman, said he was in a meeting and asked this newspaper to call him back, but he could not be contacted when we did so.
Mr Rodgers, in a December 2018 interview on his group’s plans for the Lighthouse Club, said they planned to create the country’s “first 100 percent green resort” through a $7m investment that would expand the property and create an initial 40-50 jobs.
Pledging to restore the resort to “its old glory”, he added that the group was seeking to exploit Andros’s “eco-friendly environment” through the implementation of renewable energy sources such as solar and biomass.
Mr Rodgers said the resort’s marina and location, especially its proximity to Nassau, meant they would target the domestic - as well as international - tourism market, as he expressed a willingness to work with the Ministry of Tourism and other Andros resorts to “create synergies” and market the entire island.