PI entrepreneur makes ‘let’s go PM’ challenge

• Urges govt: ‘Take feet off Bahamian necks’

• Says held-up project answers minister’s call

• ‘Time to put up or shut up’ over local support

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The entrepreneur behind the proposed $2m restoration of Paradise Island’s lighthouse yesterday said he is “throwing down the gauntlet” to the government, and urged: “Let’s go prime minister.”

Toby Smith, principal of Paradise Island Lighthouse & Beach Club Company, told Tribune Business he was turning the minister of tourism’s call for Bahamians to develop tours and attractions “of scale” back at the Minnis administration with his own challenge for it to “take your feet off the necks of Bahamians and let us thrive”.

Emphasising that he was not criticising Mr D’Aguilar, who he said “gets it”, Mr Smith said he has been trying for 3,274 days to get just such a project past the “hoops and hurdles” constantly placed in his way by a government bureaucracy that continually favours foreign investors over their Bahamian counterparts.

Reiterating that his proposal to restore the 203 year-old lighthouse on Paradise Island’s western end, and create an accompanying beach break destination over five acres, was fully financed and capable of growing its full-time workforce beyond the original 40 employees, he added that the Government needs to “put up or shut up” on its professed commitment to supporting local entrepreneurs.

Mr Smith, saying he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to move his ambitions forward, also struck a conciliatory tone over the Supreme Court action he has filed over the Government’s alleged failure to honour a Crown Land lease for the project, suggesting this would be dropped if the project finally receives the go-ahead and adding: “Let’s get on and do it, please.”

While declining to comment on the status of his legal claim, on the basis that it remains before the courts, the entrepreneur said he had been driven to speak out by Mr D’Aguilar’s call for Bahamians to develop “projects of scale” that can accommodate hundreds - if not thousands - of cruise passengers visiting Nassau at a time.

Arguing that his development fits exactly what the minister is looking for, Mr Smith charged: “Absolutely I’m challenging them. Enough of them challenging me. It’s challenging enough with the hoops and hurdles you’re making me go through. I’m not saying that maliciously; I’m saying let’s get on with it.”

He is seeking to lease two Crown Land parcels at Paradise Island’s western end, one of which involves two acres around the lighthouse and another three acres for the “beach break” element. Mr Smith said this was of sufficient scale to potentially allow hundreds of visitors to socially distance in small groups while still complying with the Government’s COVID-19 protocols.

“I’m putting the Prime Minister on notice to lead. If they’re looking for something [a large project] I’m brave enough to accept the challenge,” he asserted. “As far as I’m concerned we already have the lease. They need to give me all the bona fide documents so we can proceed; not a promise, not a whim.

“For me, we need a meeting of the minds so that we can do whatever is necessary to get this project going..... Everything is lined up. It has been lined up for nine years. What needs to line up is the Government side. I’m challenging them. They need to meet the challenge by putting up or shutting up.

“This is going to provide jobs for Bahamians, great; it’s going to provide ownership for Bahamians, great; it’s the right segment of the market, that’s great; and Bahamians need more beach access, that’s great. Let’s go.”

Mr Smith said the project would start with 40 full-time Bahamian employees and “organically build on those numbers. I’m not going to give out pie in the sky numbers; the business will grow organically but we’ll have the capacity to host thousands of visitors over five acres of land.

“I’m ready, willing and able, and all the boxes are checked in terms of the best interests of Bahamians. I’d love to hire more people. Whatever it takes. I’m throwing down my gauntlet. Let’s go Prime Minister.” A minimum of 40 construction jobs will also be required to restore the lighthouse to former glories and develop the beach break component.

Mr Smith’s court action is alleging that he was granted a valid crown land lease over both parcels, including the lighthouse and the area at Colonial Beach for his ‘beach break’ destination, which is now legally binding.

A January 7, 2020, letter from Richard Hardy, acting director of Lands and Surveys, was headlined “approval for crown land lease” over the two tracts. Mr Smith previously told this newspaper he returned the lease, bearing his signature and other formalities, to the Government on January 9, 2020.

However, the Government has to-date failed to apply its signature and execute the lease, with officials telling the entrepreneur that the document is now “not worth the paper it is written on”.

Mr Smith voiced fears at the time that his project was being “marginalised” and treated like “a second class citizen” to make way for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines’ rival beach break destination that is targeted at the same portion of Crown Land on Paradise Island.

However he entrepreneur, in a missive responding to Mr D’Aguilar’s call of earlier this week, said: “We are already ahead of the game. We are Bahamian, we have approval from the Bahamas Investment Authority (BIA), we have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and we accepted the Government of The Bahamas’ offer for a lease of Crown Land on Paradise Island.

“We want to restore the Paradise Island lighthouse free of charge and create a beach excursion for Bahamians and our guests. Since April 12, 2012, we have waited 3,274 days. We have the physical space on Paradise Island to handle thousands of cruise passengers; there’s so much room they can be spread over acres of beach.

“We understand, through their example, that the Government favours foreigners: They demonstrate this every day and their desire to make Bahamians sit small and wait. How much more challenging does government wish to make it? We have met with more than 100 government employees from the Prime Minister, ministers, permanent secretaries, directors, Boards, chairmen and the list goes on from 15 government agencies,” Mr Smith continued.

“We initiated legal proceedings against the Government of the Bahamas, and ever since this all began the Government could have just recognised the merit of the project and let us get on with it but instead they wish to pursue giving it to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines.

“If Michael Bayley, chief executive of Royal Caribbean, calls the Prime Minister, he takes his call. If a Bahamian calls for a meeting he ‘sucks his teet’ and we shall continue to go about our quest in a dignified, well mannered way, despite provocation from those in government that wish to provoke this into gutter politics.”

Arguing that Dr Minnis had been “flammin’ me” since he took office on May 10, 2017, Mr Smith added: “Compare that to every photo op he can get and ask yourself how many Bahamian entrepreneurs does he welcome into his office to meet and publish photos?

“Look at the red carpet treatment he gives to foreign investors while peanut and coconut vendors trying to make ends meet in providing for their families in an honest way [are locked up].” Calling for Bahamians similarly stuck in “red tape” over seeking government approvals, Mr Smith said the “running around the mulberry bush” with government agencies must halt.

“I would like to unite with other Bahamians and express to this Minnis-led administration that we are fed up watching him entertaining foreign investment.... and leaving the hardworking, honest, enterprising Bahamians out of the mix and settling for crumbs. We want a piece of the pie,” he blasted.

“Beach access for Bahamians is getting more and more limited. We are losing our historical buildings over time. If government are clearly not prepared to fix up the oldest lighthouse in the country at 203 years old, get out our way.

“We wish to publicly recognise the support that Dionisio D’Aguilar has given us publicly and privately; he gets it and we appreciate it. My challenge to government: Get out of the way, take your feet off the necks of Bahamians and let us thrive.”

Mr Smith said the alternative was for the Prime Minister to let him proceed with his plans so that the project can be operational in time for when the cruise ships resume sailing from south Florida.