By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The government “is very mindful of the environmental concerns” surrounding the just-approved $300m South Abaco project, a Cabinet minister said yesterday, hailing it as “transformational”.
Dionisio D’Aguilar, pictured, minister of tourism and aviation, told Tribune Business that while the environment was “a critical component” of the tourism product its protection had to be balanced with the need to create economic growth and job opportunities.
Speaking after the government signed a Heads of Agreement with Tyrsoz Family Holdings and its principal, Ronnie Ben-Zur, Mr D’Aguilar said south Abaco residents seemed largely “supportive” of the development and the opportunity it creates for them to earn a living in their home island.
He described the project, which includes a small 5,000 square foot casino, as “checking a lot of boxes” and “fitting the model of product” the government wants for the Family Islands in terms of attracting high-end visitors.
Mr D’Aguilar also voiced optimism that Tyrsoz Family Holdings and Mr Ben-Zur have the necessary financing for their plans, adding that the developer had “put together an impressive group of partners” although declined to name them.
“This is a huge $300m project for south Abaco which is really transformational,” Mr D’Aguilar told Tribune Business. “It checks a lot of the boxes in the sense that it fits into the model of product we want to put in the Family Islands.
“It’s very low density, very high-end in terms of hotel infrastructure, catering to a very high-end yachting crowd because he intends to create a marina for very high-end yachts.”
Mr D’Aguilar said the sale of lots to buyers who would then build luxury homes will give the project scale, and feed into Abaco’s reputation as a second home destination, while the Sandy Point airport would be upgraded from “just a landing strip” into a fixed-base operation (FBO) and terminal creating to private jets.
“It’s going to create an enormous amount of jobs, 600 in construction and another 600 when full-time operations begin,” he added. “It’s going to take while for that project to flesh out, probably 18 months to get going. Today was an important first step, and now the foundation work begins with further architects’ plans, getting all the government approvals and environmental studies done.”
Tribune Business has reported extensively over the past year on the significant opposition to the Tyrsoz Family Holdings project from environmental groups, notably the 13 members of the Sustainable South Abaco group, who are 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.
“I don’t know if there’s been significant push back but certainly the residents in south Abaco seemed largely supportive,” Mr D’Aguilar said. “We are very mindful of the environmental concerns and I’m sure they will be duly considered. Decisions by the environmental regulatory bodies will ensure its protection.
“The Government is focused on the environment first and foremost, and considers it an important component of the tourism product, so we want to protect it as best we can. But that has to be balanced with the desire and need for economic development, which is why we have to ensure the correct balance is struck.”
When the development of a casino in a relatively remote Family Island location was questioned, Mr D’Aguilar said Mr Ben-Zur needed “to build a certain amount of scale to create a destination” that can attract the high-end visitors he is targeting.
He added that the Government was “minded to give him an opportunity to see if he can make it work” when it came to the casino, and said the Government was seeking to create economic opportunities that would enable south Abaco residents to either remain at, or return, home rather than having to migrate to Nassau for work.
Questioned whether the developer has the necessary financing, Mr D’Aguilar said of Mr Ben-Zur: “He definitely, in my opinion, has the business background, experience in the hospitality business, and success as a businessman. In our opinion he possesses the qualities, the attributes that someone wishing to pull off a project like this needs, but only time will tell.”