By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The economic viability of a $580m South Abaco project has been "stretched to the maximum" to produce "the lowest density project in The Bahamas" and satisfy environmental concerns.
Ra’anan ‘Ronnie’ Ben-Zur, the principal behind the Tyrsoz Family Holdings development, yesterday told Tribune Business he was "extremely conscious" of the issues raised by his proposed development before activists such as Sustainable South Abaco raised them publicly.
Acknowledging that his project's two sites, collectively covering around 1,100 acres, lie in an area of extreme environmental sensitivity close to the Abaco National Par, and breeding and nesting grounds for the Abaco parrot, Mr Ben-Zur reassured that it made no business sense to disrupt this since it represented "a selling proposition" to attract visitors and clientele.
Speaking after the project's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was submitted to the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP) for review, and released publicly, Mr Ben-Zur said the development will involve substantial investment to upgrade South Abaco's airport, road and electricity infrastructure.
Urging observers not to lose sight of the development's projected $2bn economic impact over its first ten years, plus the 600 full-time and "average" 600 construction jobs it promises to provide, he added that South Abaco's need for employment and economic development - especially post-Dorian and COVID-19 - cannot be "over-emphasised".
Declining to provide figures beyond what has already been released, Mr Ben-Zur pledged: "We are going to be very low density because of this environment. We stretched the economic flexibility to the maximum we can, but we are very comfortable with the results. We have a very powerful project that should work very well."
Asked about the environmental concerns that were raised last year, he replied: "We are extremely conscious, and were conscious of it before the concerns were raised. When I went to the site, I'm not an environmentalist, but I'm a responsible person who cares about the world. It was obvious we would decide to do it low density.
"We have 1,100 acres and could put 4,000 keys there without thinking twice, but the moment I went to see it, it was obvious it was not on the cards. It is the most low density project you will find in The Bahamas.
"Compare it to Albany, Baker's Bay and the Ocean Club. We're way less dense than they are; half of what they are or better. It's very hard to measure, but I believe we're at 40 percent to 60 percent of their density."
Mr Ben-Zur added that Tyrsoz Family Holdings will also be contributing significantly to environmental causes via a $1m donation to the Bahamas National Trust "for the purpose of improving and developing the Abaco National Park" and its 20,000 acres pine tree forest.
The developer has also pledged to grant 175 acres from its landholdings to increase the Abaco National Park's footprint, along with a $350,000 donation to develop a coppice tree habitat for the Abaco Parrot. And a further $1.5m has been promised to restore the Hole in the Wall lighthouse.
The Tyrsoz Family Holdings project currently features 170 hotel rooms, 290 residential units, a 136-slip mega yacht marina, 18-hole golf course and other amenities. Mr Ben-Zur declined to name any of his hotel, golf and marina management/design partners yesterday, citing confidentiality agreements with all of them, and said there were no plans to make South Abaco a mega casino destination.
Asked whether he planed to include a casino among the amenities, he answered: "We probably will, but only a small amenity level casino. This is not going to be a location for casino tourism. We have not yet approached any casino management groups to try and attract them; it is too early for that. If [we do it] then it will be a part of the Marina Village complex."
Mr Ben-Zur also cited non-disclosure agreements when asked about the identity of Tyrsoz Family Holdings' financial backers, replying: "We have agreements for what we need. I've already put a lot of money into it, millions of dollars, and three-and-a-half years of my life, so I can assure you we have everything we need to take it forward."
The project’s two real estate holdings include the 620-acre Lantern Head parcel, which is closer to the National Forest. The other 467-acre tract, called “South-West Point”, lies further south on Abaco’s south-western tip.
Mr Ben-Zur yesterday revealed that while both parcels are "under contract" he has yet to close on them amid the wait for final government approvals and permits. With the Heads of Agreement signed with the Minnis administration in February 2020, the environmental permissions now remain the only potential obstacle to completing the land purchase.
The Environmental Management Plan (EMP) is targeted for completion and submission to the DEPP before year-end 2020, and Mr Ben-Zur voiced hope that all environmental go-aheads would be received by January/February 2021 so that engineering and architecture work - plus site clearance - can proceed.
He revealed that the "big elements of construction" are being targeted for a start 12-18 months from that date, with build-out taking three years and the project opening in 2026 if not sooner.
Environmentalists remain unconvinced. Cindy Pinder, of Sustainable South Abaco, in an e-mail to Tribune Business last night said that while the EIA was still being examined "a high level overview has our many scientists extremely concerned at some of the data gaps".
She added: "A full review has not, and cannot, be accomplished in such a short time period, but we are working on a comprehensive response that we hope to present to the relevant authorities in the near future.
"An immediate concern is that in light of the tremendous impacts of Dorian on Abaco, can this overtly large and complex development succeed at this time? Moreover, the 60 percent decline in tourism to The Bahamas and the worldwide economic downturn because of COVID raises even more concerns as to the economic viability of such a protect.
"We are furthermore not convinced that this developer has either the financial resources or the experience to make a success of such a large development especially in light of the negative environmental impacts that we anticipate occurring."
However, Mr Ben-Zur and Tyrsoz Family Holdings have already won the backing of the South Abaco District Council.