By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Disney Cruise Line yesterday voiced hope it can start developing its Lighthouse Point project this year while reaffirming the investment and job creation commitments given pre-COVID-19.
Kim Prunty, its vice-president of public affairs, told a Zoom call with Bahamian media that despite the pandemic delaying Disney's plans by "a year to a year-and-a-half" it will still deliver 120 construction jobs - some 80 percent of which will be Bahamian - for a cruise destination whose build-out will be complete by the 2024 first half.
Speaking as Disney released its 550-page Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a document whose disclosure has long been demanded by local and environmental activists, Ms Prunty promised that the project's economic impact will "significantly exceed the concessions" granted by the Bahamian government.
While not providing any details on the tax breaks and other incentives received by the cruise line, she said Disney did not ask for anything beyond what the Government typically grants in its Heads of Agreements with major foreign investors.
Acknowledging that "the pandemic has impacted the timing" of the project located on Eleuthera's southern tip, Ms Prunty added: "Assuming we're able to receive government acceptance of the EIA and Environmental Management Plan (EMP) this year, and get through the consultation and permitting with the Ministry of Works, we'd like to begin work this year with completion in the first half of 2024."
Pledging that Disney was "making every effort to maximise Bahamian participation in this project", she reaffirmed the cruise line's goal of creating "150 well-paying operations jobs" - with an average weekly wage of $600-$700 similar to its existing Castaway Cay destination - when the destination opens on 2024.
Disney also stuck to figures detailing the project's economic impact from an Oxford Economics study performed pre-COVID, which estimated that Lighthouse Point will increase Bahamian gross domestic product (GDP) by more than $800m over a 25-year period while also growing government revenues by $355m over the same period.
The annual increases, some $32m for GDP and $14.2m in government revenue, are slightly less impressive but significant nonetheless - especially for a south Eleuthera community that was desperate for revitalisation and a major increase in economic activity even prior to COVID-19.
Ms Prunty also asserted that Disney's planned Lighthouse Point investment of between $250m-$400m "has not changed despite the pandemic", although it was unclear how much of this is consumed by construction of the pier that will take passengers from the cruise ship to land.
She added that Disney "plans to have a ship in port three to five days a week" at Lighthouse Point, with the destination only having room for one vessel at a time and passenger numbers depending on which particular ship it is.
“The number of guests traveling on Disney Cruise Line ships will range from 11,400 to 26,600 per week, depending on the season," the Lighthouse Point EIA says.
"The guests will be contained in designated areas within the project site and not allowed access to sensitive areas or allowed to roam freely from paths and guest areas. Disney Cruise Line has extensive experience in managing guest flows and control.”
Ms Prunty added: "The Disney Magic and Disney Wonder can hold 2,700 passengers, and the Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy can hold 4,000 passengers. Today, we operate Castaway Cay and have also developed lest than 20 percent of the acreage there. We have the same ships calling on Castaway (one at a time as well) and are able to effectively protect the environment."
She said Disney has committed to developing "less than 20 percent" of Lighthouse Point's 758 acres, with the actual area covered by its cruise passenger and beach break destination set to cover around 16 percent of the site.
Ms Prunty said around 25 percent of the property, some 190 acres, is being donated to the Government and Bahamian people, meaning they will have more land than Disney will develop, with the majority left untouched.
The 190-acre donation, she added, was effectively returning land valued at $6.29m to the Bahamian people for free, with public access also being maintained to a site renowned for its environmental and natural beauty.
Pointing out that the ambitions of the previous developer, from whom Disney acquired Lighthouse Point, would have had "a significant environmental impact", Ms Prunty detailed several adjustments made by Disney based on feedback from Eleuthera residents and other stakeholders.
She explained that Disney had switched the location for its "back-of-house" facilities from the north-western section of its property to the north-east after finding the former area was inhabited by protected trees and historical ruins.
No development will take place around Lighthouse Point's Salt Pond, while Ms Prunty said changes have also been made to the cruise ship docking pier by narrowing its width to reduce the impact by some 25 percent.
"We have spent an unprecedented three years developing one of the most comprehensive EIAs ever produced for a project in The Bahamas. Along the way, we have engaged with hundreds of stakeholders and experts throughout The Bahamas, whose thoughtful feedback has enabled us to continue to evolve our plans,” said Dr Mark Penning, Disney's vice-president of animals, science and the environment.
"As we have said from the beginning, we will only move forward with a project at Lighthouse Point if we are able to do so in a way that aligns with our company's deep and longstanding commitment to the environment. The EIA has confirmed this will be possible with the appropriate environmental management plan in place."
Disney's project is not without its opponents. Sam Duncombe, reEarth's president, who helped spearhead a petition against Lighthouse Point's development that has attracted 440,317 signatures to-date, accused the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP) of "dereliction of duty" by failing to publish Disney's EIA itself and letting the cruise line take the lead.
"It is absolutely obscene that the EIA is not on the Government site, and that Disney is being allowed to take the lead on collecting public comment," she blasted, while saying she was "looking forward to a proper consultation period".