By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian entrepreneur behind the proposed $2m renovation of Paradise Island's lighthouse yesterday said he refuses to continue "begging like a Jonser" after taking his battle with the Government to court.
Toby Smith, principal of Paradise Island Lighthouse & Beach Club Company, confirmed to Tribune Business he has initiated legal action to force the Government to honour the Crown Land lease agreement he executed in early January for two separate parcels at Colonial Beach.
Disclosing that he has hired Wayne Munroe QC to lead his action, Mr Smith vowed he is "not going around the Mulberry Bush again" after efforts to obtain all necessary approvals for his 'beach break' destination - complete with lighthouse history, tours and Bahamian culture - went into their ninth year.
Venting frustration that his plans, which would create 40 Bahamian construction jobs and a similar number of full-time posts, had been dashed just when his goal was in sight, Mr Smith argued that the Minnis administration's failure to honour the Crown Land Lease sends "a very dangerous message" to both the local and international investors that are desperately needed to revive the economy post-COVID-19.
With the necessary financing in place, the entrepreneur said he was "ready to begin mixing mortar" as soon as the Government gave the go-ahead. However, while promising that he will "never give up" on his ambitions, Mr Smith said he was unwilling to proceed while Carl Bethel QC, the attorney general, held the position that his Crown Land lease was "not valid" and cannot bind the Government.
Mr Bethel declined to comment when contacted by this newspaper last night, but Mr Smith's writ - which was served on the Attorney General's Office on Monday, after being filed with the Supreme Court registry on May 18 - is grounded in the Crown Proceedings Act's Chapter 68.
The Bahamian entrepreneur is seeking a Supreme Court declaration that based on the letter he received on January 7, 2020, "there is a concluded agreement for a lease between the plaintiff and the minister responsible for lands and surveys".
That minister is the Prime Minister, Dr Hubert Minnis. Should the Supreme Court find there is no valid or binding lease agreement, Mr Smith's writ alternatively seeks damages for its breach. The letter in question, from Richard Hardy, acting director of Lands and Surveys, was headlined “approval for Crown Land lease” over two separate parcels.
One parcel was two acres in size for the Paradise Island lighthouse, and the other three acres represented the ‘beach break’ element. Mr Smith returned the lease, bearing his signature and other formalities, to the Government on January 9, but the latter failed to apply its signature and execute the lease, and as a result is arguing that no binding agreement was sealed despite him also possessing Bahamas Investment Authority approvals.
The Bahamian entrepreneur is seeking some of the same Crown Land being eyed by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines for its 'Royal Beach Club' destination, which is why many observers believe the Government held-off signing the lease agreement even though Mr Smith's proposal pre-dated the cruise giant's plans by some years.
Having previously voiced fears that he was being "marginalised" by the Government in favour of a major foreign investor, and squeezed to accept inferior land parcels at Colonial Beach, Mr Smith yesterday argued that his treatment showed the Minnis administration's rhetoric about it being "the people's time" and "Bahamians coming first" was not borne out by its actions.
He added that the writ's filing prevents the Government "negotiating with any party the land in contention", implying that no Supreme Court injunction is necessary to prevent it sealing a deal with Royal Caribbean - which has already indicated its Paradise Island plans have been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic - in the meantime.
"We are seeking for the Government to honour the agreements they have put in place, namely the Crown Land lease," Mr Smith told Tribune Business. "This is because I have been begging for eight years. I finally get it resolved in the form of a Crown Land lease on January 7, and I only have six weeks to rejoice that I reached this milestone before Carl Bethel tells me it's not valid.
"I've tried begging... begging like a Jonser. I've tried asking nicely. I'm not going around the Mulberry bush again. I've dealt with 100 top government employees, gone through 14 agencies, and Royal Caribbean walked through the door of the Bahamas Investment Authority and didn't have to wait for eight years.
"It's an unlevel playing field for Bahamians. I have faith in the courts that this is going to come to a logical, reasonable conclusion where the Government is required to honour the Crown Land lease in place. While Carl Bethel unfortunately does not have a very good track record in winning cases, I'm very confident in Wayne Munroe QC's ability to win cases against the Government."
As for the wider implications of his struggles, Mr Smith added: "It sends a very dangerous message to the international investment community when the Government offers a Crown Land lease only to renege on it six weeks later. What investor confidence are you hoping to attract, or what calibre of investor are you hoping to attract?
"A deal is a deal as far as I'm concerned. They made an offer. I accepted the offer in its entirety in accordance with its full terms. I accepted their invitation, and paid for it within the prescribed time in accordance with the terms of the Crown Land lease.
"The way the Crown Land lease was offered was through a Cabinet approval in co-ordination with other agencies, including Lands and Surveys. Carl [Bethel] can argue all he wants to the judge. Do they want to string this Bahamian along through the courts even longer, or get Bahamians back to work without this litany of excuses?"
Asked whether his ordeal will cause other Bahamian entrepreneurs to think twice about getting into business activity that requires government approval, Mr Smith replied: "I'm completely lost for words in responding to that question.
"How can any Bahamian have hope to succeed when this is how the Bahamian government treats Bahamians, and demonstrates to Bahamians how the Bahamian government treats foreign investors. It's a kick in the teeth.
"The Government stands up and pretends it's the people's time, the Government stands up and pretends it's Bahamians first, but they demonstrate with their actions this is entirely untrue."
Describing his dealings with the Government as "a nightmare", Mr Smith promised to eventually release the "thousands of e-mails, hundreds of written correspondences and thousands of phone calls" to demonstrate how hard he has worked in trying to realise his investment dream.
Recalling how the Prime Minister e-mailed him to set up a meeting through his secretary, only for the latter to receive no instruction before he called, Mr Smith added: "The Prime Minister thinks the joke's on me. I don't have time for petty games.
"We're 119th on the ease of doing business rankings for a reason. The Government thinks linking NIB with the Business Licence is the be all, end all solution to the ease of doing business in The Bahamas. Look at what Brent Symonette said in his Budget contribution. Enough of the excuses."
Arguing that projects such as his were essential to revive Bahamian jobs and the economy following the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr Smith said: "How else are we going to get out of this economic hole we were in even before the pandemic and before Dorian. The private sector is working hard to attract the right foreign direct investment, and the Government is doing a unique job in souring relationships and the efforts of Bahamians.
"It’s a real shame that entrepreneurial Bahamians must go to the extent of taking government to court for opportunities to succeed. I'm ready to go. If they tell me start, I'll start tomorrow. But I'm not building on foundations that are shaky when the attorney general tells me my documents are not valid. We have the country’s commercial reputation at the hands of one person?
"We need it resolved so that we can start mixing mortar and get Bahamians employed in meaningful jobs. I think it's abundantly clear to right-minded people that it is absolutely imperative to have a project such as ours that attracts foreign currency that stays in the country, whereas projects such as Royal Caribbean's take all the profits out."
Pledging that his project will require "zero work permits", and will explore an initial public offering (IPO) of shares long-term, Mr Smith added that his plans called for an inclusive development that welcomed Bahamians and tourists alike as opposed to the cruise line's likely "exclusive" destination.