The Bahamas’ main opposition party has ramped up attacks on the government for its handling of the stalled Chinese-funded mega resort, Baha Mar, calling Prime Minister Perry Christie (pictured) "disastrously negligent" and "delusional" for placing the resort in liquidation.
The attacks by the Free National Movement (FNM) party come as the resort’s original developer Sarkis Izmirlian wages a public campaign to pressure the project’s de facto owner, state-owned Export-Import Bank of China, to let him carry on with completing the $3.5bn hotel and casino complex, which came to a halt amid an acrimonious legal battle in June 2015.
Estimated to be 97% complete, the Baha Mar scheme has become a major headache for Christie’s Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which faces a general election next year.
The tiny Caribbean nation’s unemployment rate spiked after 2,000 people hired to staff the resort were laid off in 2015, and Bahamian contractors are thought collectively to be owed $74m for work done for the Chinese main contractor on the resort, which is currently for sale.
The Bahamas cannot afford to allow the largest single hotel development in its history to sit idle and unopened for much longer– Shadow minister Loretta Butler-Turner
The FNM has gone on the offensive with its shadow minister for labour and social development, the MP Loretta Butler-Turner, yesterday calling the Christie government "disastrously negligent" and "delusional", and defending developer Sarkis Izmirlian.
Butler-Turner said the government should never have placed the resort scheme in liquidation and called for a concerted diplomatic outreach to the Chinese government to get the scheme unblocked.
"The Bahamas cannot afford to allow the largest single hotel development in its history to sit idle and unopened for much longer," the shadow minister said in a press statement yesterday, reports Bahamian newspaper The Tribune.
She said Christie’s government "dramatically failed to monitor the construction of Baha Mar" and "proved disastrously negligent", adding that Christie’s push for Izmirlian’s company to be wound up and placed in liquidation in the summer of last year had dire consequences.
"Various observers warned that liquidation would be a grave mistake," she said. "But a delusional and incompetent prime minister would not listen.
"At the time, various government ministers made unnecessary and ill-advised remarks which frightened potential foreign investors in respect of immigration policy and about the government’s approach to the protection of private property.
"It is highly likely that the Baha Mar impasse would have been resolved had the government not acted so unwisely and precipitously. The decision to place Baha Mar in liquidation has had dire economic and foreign policy consequences."
Now the government should appoint a highly respected senior official and special envoy to negotiate with parties in China to resolve the impasse, Butler-Turner said, adding that Sarkis Izmirlian’s ideas for opening the resort should be given a fair hearing.
The shadow minister’s statement follows a broadside last week by FNM party leader Hubert Minnis, who said Izmirlian "should be allowed to come back and be the driver of his dream".
Minnis mocked Christie and other government figures for questioning the mental soundness of Izmirlian last year when the developer filed for protection under US bankruptcy laws on 29 June, after the Chinese contractor missed two resort opening deadlines.
"Bahamians can make their own determination as to who needs the mental check now and I’ll leave it at that," Minnis said in an interview with The Tribune.
The FNM offensive comes as Izmirlian wages a public campaign to pressure the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim bank) to let him carry on with completing the resort.
The Exim bank ousted Izmirlian as developer by having the resort placed in receivership in October last year, and is now trying to sell Baha Mar to recover $2.45bn it lent the scheme under a deal signed in 2010. Potential buyers are forbidden to make contact with Izmirlian.
Last month Izmirlian published a letter his company BMD Holdings had sent to Exim bank President Liu Liange offering to get the resort open, repay the scheme’s creditors and rehire Bahamian staff, all with no loss to the bank.
Clearly with the Bahamian public in mind, Izmirlian wrote: "Without a doubt my team and I have the best chance of opening Baha Mar quickly and successfully for the benefit of the Bahamian people, Exim bank and the stakeholders of Baha Mar.
"I have maintained since last year the former senior most management team of Baha Mar at a significant cost and we are unequivocally committed to making an opened Baha Mar a truly Bahamian driven business success for the direct benefit of Bahamians both economically and in terms of quality of life."
But Izmirlian received no response to his offer, made on 11 April, and last week the Supreme-Court appointed receivers said they could not make a deal with him outside the court-approved sales process.
Speaking for the receivers, Raymond Winder, Deloitte & Touche (Bahamas) managing partner, said that neither he nor the Exim bank could even talk to Izmirlian outside that process.
"Even if we wanted to negotiate one-on-one with Sarkis, we couldn’t do it," he told The Tribune, "and the bank can’t negotiate with him one on one. We can’t go making a deal with Sarkis."
That prompted another open letter from BMD Holdings, this time to the receivers, asking why neither they nor the Exim bank would communicate directly with BMD, and complaining of being denied information about the sales process.
Still appealing to Bahamians directly, BMD Holdings general counsel Whitney Thier wrote on 15 April: "Of what benefit to the stakeholders is it to continue to conceal this information, and what possible harm could it do to reveal it given the importance of this project to the country and the number of Bahamians so directly affected by its outcome?"
The campaign may be working. Izmirlian’s open letters have generated strong headlines in the Bahamas, with a number of figures, including Gowon Bowe, chairman of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation (BCCEC), insisting that Izmirlian was within his rights to try and regain control of the property, The Tribune reported.
Even Prime Minister Christie has said Izmirlian "is deserving of every consideration". Last week he told Bahamian media that he had met with Izmirlian, and had written to the Exim bank asking for confirmation that bank officials are giving consideration to the developer’s offers.
The prime minister will be hoping the situation can be resolved quickly. Although his PLP won a landslide in 2012, capturing 29 of the House of Assembly’s 38 seats in the Bahamas’ first-past-the-post system, the popular vote was more evenly split, at around 48.6% for the PLP and 42% for the FNM.
Photograph: Bahamas Prime Minister Perry Christie during a town hall meeting in January 2016 (Myplp.com)