By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Bahamian entrepreneur yesterday voiced fears that his $2m Paradise Island project is being “marginalised” and treated like “a second class citizen” to make way for Royal Caribbean.
Toby Smith, principal of Paradise Island Lighthouse & Beach Club Company, told Tribune Business he was being “pushed into a corner” by the government following a Thursday night meeting at which he was urged to accept an “inferior” site for a development intended to provide jobs for 40 Bahamians.
He argued that his interests and plans, which he has pursued for eight years, are suddenly in danger of being sacrificed to ensure Royal Caribbean completes the Grand Lucayan resort’s purchase and subsequent $275m redevelopment via a deal that will be signed this morning in Freeport.
Tribune Business has previously revealed that the government has used Royal Caribbean’s desire for a “beach break” destination on western Paradise Island, where it would take the hundreds of thousands of passengers it brings to Nassau every year, as negotiating leverage to get a deal it sees as critical to Freeport’s economic survival over the line.
Joshua Sears, the prime minister’s senior policy adviser, finally confirmed to this newspaper on Friday that Royal Caribbean has “expressed an interest” in obtaining prime crown land in the Colonial Beach area although he said other applications were also “being considered”.
However, Mr Smith revealed that the government wants to accommodate the cruise industry behemoth by forcing him off the best crown land and beach parcel on western Paradise Island and into an area where his project will not be viable.
He disclosed that the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA) had sent him a letter on May 23, 2018, which gave his plans for restoring the derelict lighthouse marking Nassau Harbour’s entrance, and creating a “get-away” destination for Bahamians and visitors alike, the go-ahead for the first time following a six-year struggle.
The letter, sent on behalf of the National Economic Council, which is really the Cabinet or a Cabinet sub-committee, said it would recommend that Mr Smith be granted a Crown Land lease over parcels including both the lighthouse and an area at Colonial Beach for his ‘beach break’ destination.
It also requested that he agree a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) or Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC), an objective that was achieved on October 2, 2018.
It was not until over 14 months later, though, that Mr Smith received the proposed lease documents for the Crown Land. A January 7, 2020, letter from Richard Hardy, acting director of Lands and Surveys, was headlined “approval for Crown Land lease” over two separate parcels - one that was two acres in size for the lighthouse, and another of three acres for the ‘beach break’ element.
Mr Smith says he returned the lease, bearing his signature and other formalities, to the Government on January 9, 2020. However, the Government has to-date failed to apply its signature and execute the lease, with officials telling the entrepreneur that the document is now “not worth the paper it is written on”.
Fearing that he has been ‘swung’, Mr Smith warned both the Government and Royal Caribbean that he will not quietly accept his fate and to prepare for “a David and Goliath fight” unless they were prepared to reach a more reasonable compromise with him via negotiation.
Suggesting that the episode sends a dangerous message to both Bahamian and foreign investors over the Government’s willingness to “act in good faith”, Mr Smith argued that it was “not in the best interests of The Bahamas” for prime Crown Land on arguably the top destination in this country to be leased to a foreign entity.
“I am not prepared as a Bahamian to be marginalised in my own country,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business. “They’re [the Government] trying to push me towards the back of the bus, end of the beach, in favour of giving a foreign entity prime beach.
“I believe that what they’re trying to push upon me is unfair...... They’re expecting me to watch Royal Caribbean receive the prime parcel that the Government of The Bahamas has already offered to me through a lease with defined terms, defined parcels of land, accompanied by a cover letter stating ‘Approval for Crown Land lease’.
“Suddenly they tell me that my lease is not worth the piece of paper it is written on while they are in favour of Royal Caribbean putting their stuff on Paradise Island for a beach experience.”
Mr Smith, who had been off-island for much of last week, said he was summoned to a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office at 6pm on Thursday night. Present were Mr Sears, Candia Ferguson, the Bahamas Investment Authority’s (BIA) director and Carl Bethel QC, the attorney general.
The latter did all the talking on the Government’s behalf, the entrepreneur said, adding: “I was being called unreasonable for not being willing to accept being pushed down the beach into an inferior portion despite a parcel of land having already been defined within a lease agreement that was provided to me on January 7, 2020, after applying since April 12, 2012.
“Some may wish to consider that offering me the terms of a lease while, on the other hand, negotiating the exact same land with another foreign party is not in the best interests of Bahamians. Nor is it a demonstration of acting in good faith.”
Mr Smith said he believed the Government’s pressure for him to adjust his land needs is “all connected” to the need to ensure Royal Caribbean and its ITM Group partner complete the Grand Lucayan deal.
Tribune Business had previously been told by informed sources that the Minnis administration was waiting for that to close before it would approve the Paradise Island/Colonial Beach plans, and Mr Smith said he felt “great pressure is being exerted” by Royal Caribbean on the Government.
He explained that while the Government is still proposing to grant him two acres around the lighthouse, it has moved the other three-acre parcel to a location that is completely unsuitable for the ‘beach break’, cultural, heritage and other part of his plans.
Mr Smith explained that the beach area where the Government wants to move him is too steep, with a “45 degree angle”, rocky surface and sea spray not the desired environment for the beach dining experience he wants to offer.
Shifting his parcel further west also means he loses the ability for boats to dock at a pier he was planning to construct on the south side of Paradise Island because the slope is too narrow. The most elevated part of the 17 total Crown Land acres on western Paradise Island, which overlooks the broadest beach and best swimming area, will also belong to Royal Caribbean rather than his project.
Mr Smith explained that the latest parcel offered to him will also lack protection from the break water to the north of Paradise Island, while it also includes valuable nature and nesting sites that his plans called for leaving undisturbed.
Noting that a heron colony and other migratory birds are present right in the middle of where the Government wants to move him, he added that the area also includes ruins that - while they may be designated an historic monument by the AMMC - are falling into disrepair and present a potential hazard. Mr Smith said he is refusing to accept the liability for dealing with this.
Arguing that it was “the red carpet for foreigners, red tape for the Bahamian”, Mr Smith questioned how the Government could move so rapidly on Royal Caribbean’s demands within a matter of months - and pressure him to accommodate the cruise line - when it had taken him eight years to make this progress.
Arguing that this was “not acceptable”, he added: “I feel as though I’m being pushed into a corner. I’ve already invested substantial money in tidying up the prime beach parcel, planting trees and removing debris, and planting grass.
“It was put to me that the Government have agreed to give use of the land for the beach club to a foreigner, which they believe is in the national interest of The Bahamas. Quite frankly, my opinion is that giving up prime beachfront Crown Land to a foreign entity is not in the best interests of any Bahamian.
“I am here to fight if necessary for the rights of Bahamians that aren’t necessarily in a position to fight for themselves. Don’t get me wrong. As a Bahamian I understand the importance of foreign direct investment and development in our country that primarily protects Bahamians and provides equal opportunity. I embrace FDI, but only when it is done with respect for Bahamians.”
Voicing hope that “cooler heads will prevail”, Mr Smith said he had already reached out to Royal Caribbean seeking a meeting to achieve an amicable resolution. The cruise line, though, has not scheduled anything with him as it prepares to close the Grand Lucayan deal.
“Royal Caribbean’s legal counsel wishes to negate my efforts with confidence, stating: ‘I am one man with a stick’,” Mr Smith recalled. “I wish to remind them of the story of David and Goliath, and I will win. I have every confidence that by the Grace of God that it will be a victory of Bahamians and a modern day David and Goliath result.”
Suggesting that he might ultimately have to resort to a Judicial Review-style action through the courts, and seek an injunction blocking any Crown Land lease to Royal Caribbean until the matter was resolved, Mr Smith said he still hoped to avert such a scenario.
“I’m trying to to be cool with them [Royal Caribbean],” he added. “I don’t believe it’s too much to ask them to be cool with me.”