Is Grand Bahama the Next Offshore Hotspot?
With help from Asia, and some newcomers, Grand Bahama is primed to emerge as the region's newest hub of activity, again.
By: Ascot Grand Bahama
There has always been a strong attraction to the region for its climate, beauty and absence of income and corporate taxes, but like most tourist and lifestyle driven regions it suffered badly when the world markets withdrew their cash to focus on pressing issues at home. The dynamic Caribbean economy was “left holding the bag” on new and proposed tourist driven and infrastructure projects. To further complicate matters the USA implemented an aggressive policy of financial regulations, resulting in little to no funding being made for new business and property development not only in the USA but in the Bahamas as well.
So for a country that survives off the business, trade and tourism generated from larger world markets what options are left?
Enter the Dragon…
China, with its exceptionally deep pockets and overwhelming workforce has presented itself as a partner that is extremely interested in co-developing existing assets. The investment into Baha Mar on New Providence and other ventures is drawing the Bahamas’ interest away from USA and Canadian partners and into the fold of what is becoming the world’s new financial powerhouse. The location is prime for the Chinese, right next to the USA, and the timing is perfect for expanding their influence both financially and politically.
While it may appear that Chinese expansion is a new development, those experienced in their way know that they are not brazen investors and think extremely long-term. There is a much deeper story that begins and may culminate on Grand Bahama. It goes back to the 1999 strategic buy up, and estimated $1B investment, by Hong Kong’s Hutchison Whampoa Limited (HWL) and is enhanced by some new and quite timely developments planned for the island.
While the previous economic cycle saw the Bahamian capital Nassau and nearby Turks & Caicos grow, Grand Bahama had almost no activity. In fact it would appear that the entire island was trapped in time, with no movement forward, fresh developments, ideas or refurbishments. The entire island had essentially vanished from the radar – which is significant considering it used to be the “hottest” place in the region.
A hub for tax sheltered corporations, a mecca of gambling, and a playground for the rich and famous, Grand Bahama appeared to have everything going for it. Its unique “corporation within a country” structure of the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) attracted big names and the big money that came with them. Natural beauty, superior infrastructure, and a friendly environment for business and play made it irresistible to many.
Where did it all go wrong?
Many believe that the unexpected death of Edward St George in December 2004, a driving influence and co-chairman of the GBPA, was when everything froze. It would appear that the force that was to take Grand Bahama through the looming economic boom had been removed and there was a leadership vacuum. The remaining shareholders, Sir Jack Hayward, the St George’s financial partner who passed away this month, and St George’s children effectively operated in a caretaker mode rather than entrepreneurial. To compound this there was a prolonged bitter and very public ownership battle of the GBPA that could be blamed for the departure of planned investment and the soiling of the “Freeport”
Add a couple of severe, unexpected hurricanes to the mix and the whole island became more than financially stressed – it was emotionally devastated.
Meantime, New Providence, the location of the Bahamian capital Nassau, continued its growth reaching a level of population per square mile that is extreme in regional terms – more than 4100 people per square mile based on 2010 data compared to 98 per square mile on Grand Bahama. “Too much too fast” has New Providence suffering from an increase in crime, underworld activity and the general symptoms of overcrowding such a small island.
A general consensus among Grand Bahamians is that the current and previous governments concentrated only on New Providence, taking a “hands off” approach to Grand Bahama and leaving the management to the GBPA. The GBPA has certainly garnered the lion’s share of attention despite not doing much to attract it. Either way it appears that most Grand Bahamians concentrate more on blame, and the longing for the “old days” when Freeport had celebrity status, than moving forward. Regardless of opinions, both the GBPA and the Bahamas government, while cautious of inviting another 2007-2009 situation, are eager to facilitate investment if it comes their way.
As of today it appears that nobody has picked up the reigns and what appears to be ignored by many, excepting the Chinese and a few others, are some unchanged and undeniable facts regarding Grand Bahama:
· A tax sheltered and tax free zone that is just miles away, commuting distance, from the USA;
· Underutilised and high-quality infrastructure;
· Natural beauty and attraction;
· An existing base of high-profile international corporations;
· The GBPA is keen to facilitate new ventures and has a structure that is very attractive to international business.
HWL’s quiet, calculated, and mostly ignored moves are now beginning to show what may be the genius in a long-term strategy that stretches from the Bahamas to the opposite side of the world.
While being the outright or partial owner of significant assets on Grand Bahama, such as the port facilities, airport, Our Lucaya and Devco, their influence has been steadily growing in other regions. One of the most significant for Grand Bahama is not even located on the island but in Panama, and this could be one of the most clever strategic moves that the Hong Kong based magnate Li Ka Shing, the indirect owner of HWL, has made.
The Hong Kong conglomerate’
What most people overlook is that Grand Bahama is HWL’s end of the line distribution hub for that network, one that comes online very soon and is set to service a USA economy that has renewed vigour. HWL’s understated actions of refurbishing assets on the island and expanding facilities now appear to be quite premeditated and will undoubtedly increase growth and wealth on the island through business and migration.
This doesn’t seem to have gone unnoticed by everyone, with a great deal of interest being garnered by the island in both business and property terms from international interests, and while many have considered and run feasibility studies on the island few have committed to proceeding until now. It appears that 2014 was the year that some new players have chosen to make their run on the island.
The most significant development proposed is by Lawrence McDonough’s Kylin Group, with a $6.3 billion project to the island’s east. It proposes an entire new set of self-sustaining facilities and infrastructure including eight hotels, a casino and a cruise ship terminal. Word is that their funding, also from Chinese sources, is in place and they are awaiting approval by the government of the Bahamas.
Steve Bell, the lead on the Ascot Grand Bahama project and a contributor to many of high-end global developments is collaborating on a fully owned and unencumbered site central to the current hub of tourist and lifestyle on the island. His proposed 18-acre, 232-unit luxury residential-
A few large assets on the island have been in limbo and disused for some time, the most prominent being the Xanadu Beach Resort, currently held by Mario Donato. The rich history of Xanadu alone brings a certain quality to this site, with stories of the famous “Rat Pack” using it as a place to party and of former owner Howard Hughes using the entire top floor as his residence, spending his final years there. Kyle Houts, USA based entrepreneur, is awaiting government approval for the purchase of the entire property and is eager to bring it back to its former glory.
The Xanadu sale follows the recent sale of other significant Donato assets that are now set to reopen.
There has also been significant movement on the purchase of Port Lucaya, the island’s hub of tourism. Also awaiting government approval, the UK investor-developer is keen to revitalise the property.
Business and development will always find its own level, and there is a wave of opportunity building behind Grand Bahama, which is rapidly gaining attention despite its apparent obscurity. HWL’s long-term strategy, the overwhelming factors in the region and the steadily building economy may just be the ride that these new “surfers” are looking for.