By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The attorney general last night accused a local entrepreneur of “extreme selfishness” by rejecting a Paradise Island compromise that was “in the best interests of The Bahamas”.
Carl Bethel QC told Tribune Business that it was an “absolutely untrue assertion” by Toby Smith, principal of Paradise Island Lighthouse & Beach Club Company, that the government was forcing him to accept “inferior” land for his $2m project to make way for Royal Caribbean’s “get-away” destination at Colonial Beach.
He argued that the government had already shifted a three-acre crown land parcel it proposes to lease to Mr Smith further to the east, in response to his representations - a move that would give the Bahamian entrepreneur “half” of the best beach at Paradise Island’s western tip.
Mr Bethel said the adjustment to Mr Smith’s potential land-holdings “strikes a fair balance” between providing entrepreneurial opportunities for Bahamians and improving Nassau’s attractiveness as a cruise port of call and destination.
He suggested that allowing Royal Caribbean to have its own private Paradise Island destination for the hundreds of thousands of cruise passengers it brings to Nassau every year was needed to improve the visitor experience, and effectively represents a trade-off for the increased port and tourist fees that will finance Prince George Wharf’s $250m upgrade by Global Ports Holding.
The Attorney General suggested that Mr Smith could be viewed as “unreasonable” for rejecting the Government’s offer, and hinted that if he did not accept there were “thousands of Bahamians that would relish the opportunity” of being able to market their product to the thousands of Royal Caribbean passengers on the adjoining property.
“It’s an absolutely untrue assertion,” Mr Bethel said of Mr Smith’s argument that he is being forced to move to enable Royal Caribbean to lease 10 acres of prime beachfront Crown Land on western Paradise Island, leaving him with a rocky portion unsuited to his own ‘beach break’ destination.
“Yes, in order to accommodate the Royal Caribbean development he was asked to move further to the west. The initial position, though, was not the on-the-ground position in terms of determining land usage. He [Mr Smith] was further to the west than he is today. We have been able to bring him further to the east.
“He’s now right in an area that he himself calls a ‘sweet spot’. He’s further to the east than he would have been. He’s right in an area referred to as having the largest expanse of beach. He has half of that going west. We have made an adjustment that does not in any way prejudice him.
“He has an equal share in half of the best beach and higher land to put his development on next to Royal Caribbean and their thousands of tourists. If he [Mr Smith] portrays that as inferior land that’s not the case. He has half of the best beach land on Paradise Island. If that is not acceptable to him, so be it, but we’ve done more than enough to ensure his project is not prejudiced by Royal Caribbean’s development.”
Mr Smith, though, told Tribune Business that Mr Bethel had effectively been trying to sell him “a second hand car” when they met on Thursday night, together with Joshua Sears, the Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser, and Candia Ferguson, director of The Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA), to alter the Crown Land holdings he would receive to accommodate Royal Caribbean.
Arguing that it was the Government, rather than himself, who were being “unreasonable”, Mr Smith questioned why he should be forced to move to allow a foreign corporate giant to lease 10 of 17 acres of Crown Land at Paradise Island’s western tip that currently belongs to the Bahamian people.
Voicing fears that he may become a victim of the Government’s desire for Royal Caribbean to close the Grand Lucayan deal, and that Colonial Beach may have been used as a bargaining tool in those negotiations, Mr Smith yesterday listed multiple reasons why the revised three-acre beachfront parcel now proposed for him will not work (see other article on Page 1B).
Meanwhile, Philip Davis, the Opposition’s leader, also issued a statement yesterday questioning whether the lease of Paradise Island Crown Land to Royal Caribbean for a Nassau excursion destination was part of the Grand Lucayan deal due to be signed today.
“The Prime Minister and his ministers must therefore answer the question before tomorrow’s signing,” Mr Davis said. “Is the Crown Land left at Paradise Island a consideration for what is being done in Grand Bahama? We want to be assured that there are no side letters or side deals, and that what is being done in Grand Bahama is a straight and open public deal.”
Mr Bethel, meanwhile, said “there is a balance to be struck” between the needs of Bahamian entrepreneurs and making Nassau more attractive as a cruise destination. “We have to make the Port of Nassau competitive, both with private islands in The Bahamas and the emerging competition we’re going to get from Freeport,” he added.
“The strategy is that Global Ports Holding will add to the attractiveness of the Port of Nassau itself, and the immediate area around it in downtown Nassau. A consequence of that, the price, is going to be higher fees to maintain that. Certain berthing fees will increase.
“We have to increase the attractiveness of the Port of Nassau and get the cruise lines to continue to commit to coming here. One of the ways is that Royal Caribbean gets a beach front experience on Paradise Island. They’ve bought most of the private homes, not all of them but most, up to the Yoga Retreat,” Mr Bethel continued.
“Mr Smith has been moved further to the east, and the sweet spot - the best beach, and calmer waters - he has been given an equal portion of that area with Royal Caribbean. He’s right next to them, and will have the ability to work with them and other cruise lines to accommodate their passengers.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity, and strikes a fair balance between providing opportunities for Bahamians and improving the attractiveness of the destination.” Given that the purpose of Royal Caribbean’s planned destination is to ensure it maximises earning opportunities from its passengers, many observers are likely to query whether Bahamian businesses will be able to market to them.
However, Mr Bethel pressed on: “It could be said that Mr Smith is being unreasonable by rejecting this offer, as he gets prime beachfront land and the ability to market to Royal Caribbean customers right next door.
“I am sure there are thousands of other Bahamians that would relish opportunity, and to have half of that beach spot and access not only Royal Caribbean customers but all the other cruise lines coming in. I am sure there are thousands of Bahamians who would relish that opening.
“Seeking to portray what we are trying to achieve as other than in the best interests of The Bahamas is an act of extreme selfishness and irrationality in my view.”