• PPIL moving to ‘implementation’ on historic assets
• Group involves FNM chair, national campaign chief
• AMMC staffing transition, protocols to be resolved
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamian investor group aiming to transform Nassau’s key historic sites was yesterday said by senior officials to have “finalised all agreements” and is now moving to take over their management.
Joshua Sears, the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisor, told Tribune Business that the Public-Private Investments (PPIL) group - whose principals include both Carl Culmer, the Free National Movement’s (FNM) chairman, and Dr Nigel Lewis, the party’s national election campaign co-ordinator - was working towards “implementation” of its plans and assuming operational charge at the locations involved.
Responding to this newspaper’s questions, Mr Sears replied: “That [PPIL’s project] went through all the approvals processes and the National Economic Council (NEC). Those agreements have been finalised and it’s just a question of implementation now.”
He added that PPIL “are now in the process of discussing with the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums Corporation (AMMC)” how the parties will transition the heritage assets involved to the former’s management and control.
Among the key issues to be resolved are the transfer of AMMC staff to PPIL, together with the “management protocols” for these sites. “That’s an advanced process,” Mr Sears said. “All the issues of staffing are being worked out. There are public servants, and they have tenure of service and those things. They are the kinds of things they’re working on.”
Dr Hubert Minnis’ top adviser confirmed that the sites covered by the PPIL deal include Nassau’s three forts, the Queen’s Staircase (66 Steps) and Water Tower, the Pompey Museum, Botanical Gardens and the National Public Library.
Government House, home to the Governor-General, while included in PPIL’s initial ambitions is not part of the two sides’ final agreements as the Government turns to the private sector to unlock Nassau’s potential for heritage and cultural tourism.
Olvin Rees, one of PPIL’s principals, yesterday confirmed to this newspaper that Mr Sears’ description of the project’s status was “absolutely correct” and that all necessary agreements with the Government were “just about finished”. These included the operations and management agreement it had been waiting on when speaking to Tribune Business in December 2020.
He declined, though, to provide any specifics or comment much further, saying “we don’t want any distractions” - a likely reference to the upcoming general election that is now just one week away, and concerns that PPIL and its project might become caught in the political crossfire due to the identities of several of its principals.
Disclosing that PPIL was “targeting a start date or takeover date” that has yet to be determined, Mr Rees said: “We’re working on some fine details, but we’re at a very sensitive stage. We’re at a very sensitive stage discussing staff matters. We’re taking ‘x’ number of staff, and are in discussions with the union. Things are progressing well.”
Staff at the AMMC are represented by the Bahamas Public Services Union (BPSU). Mr Rees, though, said many of PPIL’s earlier financial and economic impact projections will have to be revised due to COVID-19’s impact. While declining to provide any new estimates, he clarified that the Government will “get the lion’s share” of revenues previously forecast to be a combined $1.5bn over a 25-year period.
“We have to wait to ramp up,” Mr Rees said. “Tourism needs to come back to 80 percent of what it was to give reliable projections, and that will take two to three years.” He did not comment any further.
Mr Culmer neither confirmed nor denied his involvement in the PPIL project when contacted by Tribune Business late last year, only to affirm his links after the Government was challenged over the agreement by Glenys Hanna-Martin, Opposition MP for Englerston, as the 2021-2022 Budget debate came to a close.
This newspaper understands that PPIL and its plans were initially conceived under the former Christie administration, and was then spearheaded by the late Courtney Strachan, the former AMMC chairman, and ex-Water & Sewerage Corporation chairman, Don Demeritte. Both are named in PPIL-related documents obtained by this newspaper, and it is thought Mr Demeritte was the main architect of the group’s business plan.
However, Messrs Lewis, Culmer and Rees are now PPIL’s principal players. Its aim, via a public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement with the Government, is to make all the selected locations financially self-sustainable by overhauling their appearance, enhancing the visitor experience and “pre-selling” tour packages to both cruise ship passengers and hotel tourists, reversing perceptions that Nassau is “boring” with little of interest to do amid “run down” attractions.
Documents obtained by Tribune Business revealed that the group aimed to provide 500 direct permanent jobs, and between 500 to 750 indirect jobs, via the proposed project before COVID-19 intervened. An initial $32m investment was also planned to ensure the sites underwent “‘immediate conversion’ from ‘cost to revenue centres’”.
An August 8, 2017, letter from Dr Lewis to the NEC, which references “earlier and ongoing discussions with various members of the Council”, likely meaning individual Cabinet ministers and officials, initially sought a 30-year lease concession to manage and operate sites that also included Government House, Heroes Park and Centreville (Collins) House.
The 30 year-lease and concession was later trimmed to 25 years, and Dr Lewis’ letter also suggested the group was interested in developing “guided tours through historical Adelaide, Fox Hill and Gambier Villages” while training local residents to manage and operate them, and creating “an educational heritage experience for all Bahamians”.
“We seek to establish a sustainable world-class heritage experience for tourists and locals (generations of Bahamians) alike, with the full participation of all key stakeholders,” Dr Lewis wrote, committing PPIL to an initial $30m investment and the creation of “multiple entrepreneurial opportunities”.
“This has immediate and long-term positive implications for the Government as it seeks to rebrand The Bahamas as a destination, while controlling and constraining its capital budgetary expenditures.”
A draft operations and management agreement between the AMMC and PPIL, which is unsigned and dated from February 2019, states that the investor group will “seek to provide 350 temporary jobs, 500 direct permanent jobs, 500-700 indirect permanent jobs and multiple entrepreneurial opportunities, the economic impact of which is estimated at $1.2bn over 25 years”.
These details will likely change due to COVID, as will the ‘sliding scale’ profit sharing agreement where AMMC will receive a 20 percent share at $2m and 45 percent anywhere above $4m.
“PPIL Group views the development of an effective heritage tourism model as critical to any attempt to diversify our economy and strengthen its core tourism product,” the group said in its accompanying business plan.
“This strategy speaks to the development of a ‘signature’ heritage tourism programme to be featured as a cultural focal point for ongoing efforts to preserve The Bahamas’ unique footing as the ‘cultural and geographical jewel of the Caribbean’.”
Few would argue that the sites targeted by PPIL are in serious need of improved management and upgrading. If this can be accomplished, they can play a significant role in restructuring and enhancing the Bahamian tourism product post-COVID-19, while also monetising Bahamian history and taking the country into the higher margin cultural/heritage tourism niche.
PPIL’s business plan, which is dated, named Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, former minister of tourism in the last Ingraham administration, and Michael Maura, then head of BISX-listed Arawak Port Development Company (APD), as members of the investor group.
However Mr Maura, who now heads Nassau Cruise Port, and Mr Vanderpool-Wallace both confirmed that they only had marginal and temporary connections to PPIL’s plan and are no longer involved. The latter said he backed away because his involvement could have created a “conflict” with another project he was involved with.