By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Dr Hubert Minnis says he will be “watching very closely” to see who gains the contract to ferry Royal Caribbean’s passengers to a Paradise Island project he would have approved only when the cruise line closed in Freeport.
The former prime minister, in an interview with Tribune Business, confirmed his administration had planned to sign-off on Royal Caribbean’s Royal Beach Club, and its Freeport deals involving the Grand Lucayan acquisition and cruise port expansion, “together” at the same time.
Confirming that the former Minnis administration’s approval of the cruise giant’s Paradise Island plans “hinged” on it also proceeding in Freeport, he accused his successor of “disadvantaging” Grand Bahama and “watering it down” by seemingly not linking the two deals together.
Much has changed since that strategy was put in place, with the Davis administration and Royal Caribbean mutually agreeing to terminate the latter’s negotiations to purchase the Grand Lucayan soon after the September 2021 general election. However, the cruise line has remained in talks with Freeport Harbour Company, and Hutchison Whampoa as controlling shareholder, over an expansion of the port and its cruise ship facilities.
Arguing that any Paradise Island approvals should be conditioned on Royal Caribbean proceeding with the Freeport harbour expansion, which would potentially bring thousands of extra visitors to Grand Bahama and help revive a moribund tourism product, the former prime minister also queried with the Davis administration will proceed with its predecessor’s plans to let the taxi union operate the ferries transporting passengers between Nassau Cruise Port and Paradise Island.
Wesley Ferguson, the Bahamas Taxi Cab Union’s president, declined to comment on the ferry deal’s status when contacted by Tribune Business yesterday. He indicated that he was attempting to speak with Chester Cooper, deputy prime minister and minister of tourism, investments and aviation, to determine if the union will get this contract, which Dr Minnis said was designed to compensate its members for loss of earnings due to the Royal Beach Club.
“He has disadvantaged Grand Bahama because Grand Bahama was supposed to be part of the deal,” Dr Minnis said of his successor, Philip Davis KC. “In fact, we had an agreement where we would sign the Paradise Island component at the same time we signed the Grand Bahama component.
“If they [the Government] truly love the Bahamian people then the Grand Bahama component must be continued, because that will energise and revitalise Port Lucaya. That was part of it. We sign together. We sign for Grand Bahama, and we sign for Paradise Island.
“The Grand Bahama component was that hotel and the cruise port. There would be a new and expanded cruise port, which would represent an increase in visitors to Grand Bahama, more jobs for taxis and tours, and more visitors to Grand Bahama. He [Mr Davis] has taken that out, and watered it down. It hinged on Freeport. That was the agreement. We were going to sign Freeport and Paradise Island together.”
Dr Minnis thus confirmed what has long been suspected - that the Government’s approval of Royal Caribbean’s $110m Paradise Island beach club under his administration’s watch hinged on, and was directly linked to, the cruise giant leading the revival of Freeport’s long-suffering tourism economy.
Such a link also helps to explain why Dr Minnis, as minister responsible for Crown Land, held off from signing the five-acre lease with Toby Smith and his Paradise Island Lighthouse Development Company after the Government realised that Royal Caribbean was competing for a portion of that same land for a project that as being used as leverage to ensure it proceeded with its Freeport ambitions.
Mr Smith had received the lease on January 7, 2020, which he executed and returned to the Government two days later. However, just five weeks later, Richard Hardy, director of lands and surveys, replied to David Davis, permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, on February 14 to inform him that of the 16.66 acres of Crown Land on western Paradise Island in the Colonial Beach area, close to one-third was contained in the lease to Mr Smith.
Mr Hardy, confirming that he had sent the lease signed by Mr Smith to the Prime Minister’s Office on January 13, 2020, for the Government’s execution, added that a further 0.11 acres of Crown Land had been licensed to Nassau Water Ferries Services, an entity controlled by former minister of state for investments, Khaalis Rolle.
A notation at the bottom of Mr Hardy’s letter indicates the first signs of alarm within the Government that it was effectively leasing the same Crown Land to two different parties. It refers to a conversation in which David Davis requested a survey plan of western Paradise Island showing the Crown Land allocations, a task that was described as “urgent”.
Eleven days later, on February 25, 2020, a memorandum marked “extremely urgent” by David Davis said the Minnis administration’s National Economic Council (NEC) required that the boundaries of the Crown Land allocated to Mr Smith and Mr Rolle be “adjusted” to make way for Royal Caribbean’s lease of ten acres. One day later, Royal Caribbean was informed that the NEC had approved its ten-acre Crown Land lease on February 25, 2020.
Mr Smith then met with Carl Bethel KC, former attorney general; Joshua Sears, Dr Minnis’ senior policy adviser; and ex-Bahamas Investments Authority (BIA) director, Candia Ferguson, on February 27, 2020, to be told his lease was not valid nor binding and the Government would not be proceeding with it. The Government then signed the Grand Lucayan and Freeport Harbour deals with Royal Caribbean just over one week later.
It is unclear whether the Davis administration has linked the Royal Beach Club’s go-ahead to Royal Caribbean proceeding with the Freeport Harbour deal. Negotiations with the latter involve a private company, not the Government, so drawing a direct link between the two - and making one contingent on the other - is harder.
“Part of our programme that Royal Caribbean had agreed was the ferry and movement of passengers from the cruise ships to Paradise Island, the taxi union was going to own that,” Dr Minnis said. “You’d have less passengers move from the cruise port via the Western Esplanade and Arawak Cay, and therefore the taxis would have lost a small amount of revenue.
“We wanted to ensure the taxis were compensated for that, so the union would get the ferry vessels. Royal Caribbean said they would assist with the ferry vessels for the union, and we would ensured the union got money from the Small Business Development Centre so they could get grants and loans.
“We will be watching to see who owns or gets the contract for that ferry operation. We’re going to be watching that very closely. That should go to the taxi union to compensate for the revenue lost using that transport.” Mr Cooper last week said the ferry service would be owned and operated by Bahamian entrepreneurs, but made no mention of the taxi union or who it was likely to be.
Dr Minnis, meanwhile, said his administration’s plans for Royal Caribbean involved establishing a pier at the Western Esplanade where passengers returning from Paradise Island could disembark. A boardwalk would have taken them to Arawak Cay, which would have received “excess” guests, while an “overpass” was being designed so visitors could safely cross West Bay Street and access tours at Fort Charlotte.