By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government is heading for a confrontation with environmental activists after the prime minister last night confirmed it has approved a controversial $580m project for South Abaco.
Dr Hubert Minnis, in his televised national address, said the development - which he did not name - would provide 600 jobs during both the construction and full-time operational phases after receiving the go-ahead from the National Economic Council (the Cabinet or a Cabinet sub-committee).
Describing it as a "five-star residential, resort and marina development in South Abaco", Dr Minnis said: "The capital investment, is approximately $300m, and will help in the reconstruction and revival of Abaco.
"This development will include branded hotels and a full-size golf course. [It] is expected to employ approximately 600 people during the construction phase and thereafter. The project will provide a variety of entrepreneurial opportunities for Abaconians, and Bahamians, in a number of areas, including agriculture, fisheries, heritage tourism and many other areas."
Dr Minnis said Sandy Point's airport will also be expanded to facilitate the development, and added that a Heads of Agreement for it will be signed in Abaco tomorrow. It is unclear why his address referred to a $300m investment when the developer has always touted a $580m spend, although it is possible it has been scaled back.
Subsequent inquiries by Tribune Business revealed that the project in question is the development by Tyrsoz Family Holdings and its principal, Ronnie Ben-Zur, which attracted significant criticism and opposition from environmental groups last year before Hurricane Dorian's impact overshadowed all other issues.
The Minnis administration is likely to view Mr Ben-Zur's proposal as a much-needed multi-million dollar boost for an Abaco economy that needs every cent and job it can attract following the devastation inflicted by Dorian, even though it was last year urged to reject the plans amid fear they would cause "irreversible harm" to the area's ecologically-sensitive sites.
An online petition started by Sustainable South Abaco, a grouping of local and international organisations, attracted almost 3,400 signatures against the project although this was dismissed by the developer on the basis that just 10 signatories were from Abaco.
Tribune Business was last night unable to contact Sustainable South Abaco's members, who include the Abaco Fly Fishing Guides Association; Abaco Lodge; Bahamas Marine Mammal Research Organisation; Bairs Lodge; Bonefish and Tarpon Trust; Fisheries Conservation Foundation; Friends of the Environment; Islands by Design; and Delphi Club.
However, one environmental activist, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business that the group had never received a reply to the concerns set out in their April 15, 2019, letter to the prime minister. They added that they had been aware, though, of both the project approvals and tomorrow's Heads of Agreement signing.
"There's a million questions," they said. "They [the government] wanted to announce something for Abaco, but where are they going to house all those workers? Does Mr Ben-Zur have the necessary financing? There's plenty of other places they could put it - why not send it to Treasure Cay? It needs all the help it can get, and has accommodation available. It doesn't make any sense down south."
Tribune Business understands that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Tyrsoz Holdings project has yet to be released publicly for interested groups and citizens to provide feedback on because it is still being assessed by the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology (BEST) Commission.
It is unclear why the government is proceeding to a Heads of Agreement signing without the EIA and subsequent Environmental Management Plan (EMP) being completed and approved, especially given the sensitivities associated with the project's location. However, it is possible that any go-ahead may be made conditional on satisfactory environmental findings.
Ken Hutton, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce's president, last night also identified housing and worker availability as critical issues that will confront the Tyrsoz Holdings project. He explained that all available housing in south Abaco is currently taken, while Dorian reconstruction efforts mean there is a shortage of skilled labour on the island.
Suggesting that the developer would need to import a construction workforce en masse from elsewhere in The Bahamas and abroad, Mr Hutton nevertheless said he and the Abaco Chamber would back the project provided it met all regulatory and environmental requirements.
And he added that the Prime Minister's announcement was "a great signal that we're open for business" just over five months after Abaco was devastated by one of the strongest hurricanes in the Atlantic's history.
"I think economically it could be a tremendous boost," Mr Hutton told Tribune Business. "Here again, I think there are going to be some tremendous hurdles in terms of environmental compliance, but the doors of Abaco are open.
"We need to bring economic activity back here. Provided the project is in compliance with the Government's regulations and environmental regulations, I think at the Chamber we're all for it. Provided it jumps through all the hoops, regulatory and environmental wise, it's a welcome addition to Abaco.
"I definitely think it's a good signal to international investors that are still looking at or even considering Abaco as a location to invest. It definitely bodes well for Abaco. It's a great signal that we're open for business, and it's definitely needed."
Mr Hutton, though, said "planning for the project has definitely changed" due to the logistical challenges created by Hurricane Dorian. "There's going to have to be accommodation provided by the developer for any kind of workforce," he added. "Historically, pre-Dorian, the workforce would have been provided by the community.
"In my opinion that's not a viable option right now. There's no housing in central Abaco, the housing in south Abaco is at full capacity, and the workforce required to build something like that will have to be brought in because all the tradesmen we can find are engaged."
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.
He is pledging to inject $2bn into south Abaco's struggling economy during the development's first 10 years in operation, as well as create 600 full-time jobs, and has made numerous promises to respect the area's environmental sensitivities.
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' promotional material has been devoted to reassuring Bahamians of the company's environmental credentials. 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."
Yet environmental activists remain concerned about 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.
Yet Sustainable South Abaco, in its April 15, 2019, letter to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, had warned: "While we understand the need for sustainable job opportunities for Bahamians in South Abaco, we believe that a development of this scale would result in irreversible negative socioeconomic impacts on local communities as well as dire environmental consequences for many species living in the area.....
"In conclusion, Mr Ben-Zur failed to address many critically important issues associated with this proposed development, giving us tremendous concerns for both its financial viability and its environmental impact. We strongly urge the Government to decline this project proposal for development."
In particular, they expressed concern about the impact the project's location and road paving will have on two endangered bird species - the Abaco Parrot and Kirtland's Warbler. The latter's habitat is "right in the path" of the $580m project's location.