By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
South Abaco's chief councillor says "hidden agendas" are attempting to derail a $580m investment project that she believes can transform the area into an economic "goldmine".
Jacquelyn Estevez, in an October 27, 2020, letter to Candia Ferguson, the Bahamas Investment Authority's (BIA) director, lashed out at environmental activists and others opposed to the Tyrsoz Family Holdings development and its principal, Ra’anan ‘Ronnie’ Ben-Zur.
Decrying newspaper reports, many of which appeared in Tribune Business, detailing concerns about the potential negative impacts the project could have on an area of major wildlife, ecological and environmental significance, Ms Estevez said the South Abaco District Council "fully endorses" the development.
"Despite a number of negative articles circulating throughout The Bahamas in May 2019 by various interest groups with hidden agendas to perhaps frustrate and discourage the investors, and our government to revisit and decline the proposal, my opinion remains favourable in this matter," Ms Estevez wrote.
"In all of our dealings with Mr Ben-Zur we have found him to be a man of integrity and one that has placed the preservation of the ecosystem surrounding the proposed site as being of the utmost importance and a priority in this regard.....
"Being an environmentalist in my own rank it is my opinion that this proposed investment would impact the Bahamian economy positively, attract tourists to our shores, open up added gateways to the island, create jobs, enhance our national parks, wetlands, coppices, feeding and fishing grounds with minimal damage, all elements of this investment working for the overall good of The Bahamas and our Bahamian families."
Environmental activists spoken to by Tribune Business yesterday voiced surprise to learn that Ms Estevez had described herself as an environmentalist. One source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the just-published Tyrsoz Family Holdings Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was still being reviewed.
However, they argued that a preliminary inspection had revealed several gaps and omissions for a development they fear could end up becoming another among many incomplete Family Island resort projects that are scattered throughout the Family Islands.
"What we're all fearful of is this becomes another Ginn project, and we know what happened with Ginn," the source said. They added that the EIA appeared to have missed the historical ruins of the settlement, known as Alexandria, that was built in the 1840s to house the Hole in the Wall lighthouse keepers, while the area's "more than 19 species of warbler have been glossed over.
"It didn't pick up on one of them," they added. "They haven't done enough homework on this one. The source also raised questions over the $29m environmental bond that Tyrsoz Family Holdings will now have to post under the new EIA regulations, and queried how the project would attract sufficient construction workers when Abaco is already suffering shortages in this area.
Ms Estevez, though, told the BIA that the Council does not share these concerns. She said it "shares the vision of the developer, and has sent numerous writings to our past and present governments for many years requesting varying partnerships in our quest to make South Abaco the leading touristic destination in the region.
"We still opine that the South Abaco District is a gold mine with so many natural resources available throughout the South Abaco district that, once harvested and manufactured can be additional contributors to our fiscal revenue, income increase and poverty reduction," she added.
"It is the Board's opinion that partnering with Tyrsoz Family Holdings will bring restoration to the declining economic growth of South Abaco and thus have an immense impact on the social and economic climate for the good people of Abaco.
"This development will not only bring about change and stability to a declining economy that was left from the 1990s to survive on its own, worsened from the impact of the pandemic and a devastating hurricane last year, and is in dire need of a stimulus, but it will bring back stability through the creation of jobs and start-ups of new businesses."
Ms Estevez urged the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection to "expedite" approvals for the project in a letter that was copied to Mr Ben-Zur, and is now being used as part of his marketing. The letter resembles a similar one she sent to Nicole Campbell in the Prime Minister's Office in April 2019.
Cindy Pinder, of Sustainable South Abaco, this week told Tribune Business 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."