by Larry Smith
ALICE TOWN, North Bimini -- Sipping anejo on ice in the outdoor bar of the Big Game Club here you can watch triple-decker tenders ferry hundreds of passengers from the big red cruise ship anchored offshore to the brand new casino and beach club at Bimini Bay just up the harbour.
It is a jarring sight for anyone even halfway familiar with Bimini's rustic appeal and colourful history as the fishing capital of the Bahamas. And even more jarring is the monumental Resorts World casino that rises from the parking lot near Paradise Point, site of the 1950s palatial home of millionaire inventor George Albert Lyon that the developers razed to the ground six years ago.
An alternative route to the casino is to arrive at the tiny airstrip on South Bimini - now being refurbished - take a short bus and ferry ride to Alice Town, and then pilot a rented golf cart through an enormous triumphal arch originally built to keep the resort private. Protests by locals a few years ago apparently scotched that idea.
Lyon arrived here in the 1920s to fish, and was known as the 'commodore' in his day. His estate forms the core of the 750-acre Bimini Bay resort - now re-branded as Resorts World Bimini. Despite the demolition of Lyon's mansion, the developers decided to name their first restaurant Casa Lyon because, as their 2007 press release noted without a trace of irony, "tradition is of utmost importance to Bimini Bay Resort."
Today, Bimini Bay features hundreds of cookie-cutter homes and condos decorated with imported palms, a mega-yacht marina, a bulkheaded artificial island dredged from the sound, restaurants, pools, bars, shops, tennis courts, and a beach club. Over the past 20-plus years, developers have been given virtual carte blanche by successive governments to do what they wanted on this seven-mile-long island.
Despite some land clearing and dredging, these initial plans were never implemented. And in 1995, a Cuban-American from Miami named Gerardo Capo acquired the property for $3 million. His Rav Bahamas construction company launched the current development two years later, after the landscape had been duly scraped to the bare limestone rock. The first phase of the resort opened in 2007.
The government initially signed off on a high-rise hotel, 10,000-square-foot casino, hundreds of marina slips, thousands of residential units, golf course and commercial centre. Incredibly, the original plans also called for dredging an 85-foot wide channel entirely around Bimini's mangrove-fringed lagoon and bulkheading most of the land - essentially killing the only marine nursery in the region.
Although these plans were later scaled back, the ultimate size and scope of the resort has continued to fluctuate over the years, and both the golf course and a water theme park have been on and off the table several times. And although East Bimini was designated a marine reserve years ago, it is unclear just how much protection that provides for the mangroves.
According to former environment minister Earl Deveaux, "Bimini Bay has been controversial from the beginning because of personalities, issues, perception of capacity, and appropriateness." But he said the Ingraham government had issued "a clear line of demarcation" regarding development in the sound, vetoing the golf course unless it could be sited on the south island.
In 2008 the government asked US consultants to evaluate the project's environmental and social impacts. Their report pointed to "a lack of transparency and public access to documentation of the extent and boundaries of development activities." It also disclosed that the project did not have an environmental management plan, resulting in poor practices and procedures.
Over 20 years of scientific research by the Bimini Biological Field Station (which is affiliated to the University of Miami) has demonstrated the importance of the lagoon and the East Bimini wilderness to the fishing and tourism industries. Mangrove lagoons and seagrass beds are among the most productive marine ecosystems, providing nursery and feeding grounds for many reef fish, reef-associated predators, and commercial species.
Bimini Bay's prospects took a nosedive following the global financial crisis, with resort operators coming and going. But last year Rav Bahamas principal Gerardo Capo was able to get the Malaysian multinational, Genting Group, to invest in the casino, an adjacent 350-room hotel, a cruise ship, and a docking pier extending from the beach to the drop-off on the edge of the Gulf Stream.
Genting recently spent hundreds of millions to buy the old Omni Hotel and Herald waterfront properties in Miami for conversion into a Las Vegas-style casino resort. But the Florida government vetoed the gambling idea, and Bimini - only 55 miles across the water - must have seemed a plausible alternative.
"Those plans are merely being transported across the Gulf Stream after Genting concluded that their Miami venture was unlikely to happen any time soon," according to one former government official. "In many respects, the Bimini Bay developers see the Genting group as their financial saviour, but the current transformation that is being proposed for North Bimini is surprising."
An earlier vision for Bimini Bay, according to the 2012 edition of Bahamas Investor Magazine, was to become "the Hamptons" of the Caribbean. The Hamptons are a group of chic seaside villages in New York State, with very high property values. But the current vision appears to be a shuttle service funneling as many punters as possible into Genting's newly branded Resorts World casino, whose monumental architecture seems so oddly out of place on the Bimini landscape.
Just across the parking lot from the casino is a 175-seat indoor/outdoor restaurant called Sabor, whose Greek chef, Mexican manager and Nassuvian maitre'd fawn over every guest. The food and ambiance at Sabor are first class, and a welcome contrast to the gritty, greasy fare available in the settlement. More than a hundred people now work in the resort's food and beverage operations.
Bimini has an available work force of only about 700, and there are already over 500 employees at Bimini Bay, with only 17 foreigners amongst them according to the government. Another 300 workers are expected to be hired by December for the new hotel, and since all those willing and able to work on Bimini are already employed, these jobs will be filled by incomers, who presumably will live in the resort's dormitories.
Back in the settlement, feelings towards Bimini Bay are mixed. According to retired teacher and local historian Ashley Saunders, who operates a small curio shop next to the historic Methodist Church, the resort is the greatest thing ever: "I think the positives far outweigh the negatives. We used to have a six-month tourist season, but now 200 people in a tram move through Alice Town every day in October."
Reserve police inspector Michael Checkley, who spearheaded restoration of the old commissioner's office as a small museum a dozen or so years ago, says that jobs provided by the resort mean more Biminites than ever before are paying rent and buying groceries and other goods.
Dr Sammy Gruber, a retired University of Miami marine biology professor who set up the Bimini Biological Field Station here 23 years ago, agrees that the resort brings money into the community, "but it comes with so many caveats - and it is still questionable whether it will survive. Bimini Bay is way out of scale - how can you put 6,000 people on this island which has had a stable population of about 1500 for decades?"
Bimini welcomed about 50,000 visitors last year. And Genting estimates that its planned cruise service - expected to begin early next year - will bring an additional 570,000 tourists to the island each year.
More pointedly, as Save the Bays lawyer Fred Smith told the Tribune recently: “Everything that Bimini stands for is being destroyed by excessive development. (Its) environment, culture and patrimony are being desecrated and served up to foreign developers. And the failure to properly plan and involve locals beforehand means that the island is not prepared to support such an influx of tourists."
But the government is holding its cards close to its chest. Although an environmental impact study for the cruise ship pier was conducted by the developer, it has pointedly not been made public. And only one brief community meeting has been held on the island, prompting complaints from residents about a continuing lack of information. Rather than releasing the EIA, the developers have launched a public relations charm offensive. Both Jones Communications and the Counsellors recently had TV crews on the island.
Work has already started on the pier, with pilings installed on the beach near the entrance to the resort. During my visit last week a barge was working on the seaward end of the proposed thousand-foot jetty. A four-acre-plus spoil island will be created offshore. Sediment from this construction will affect the surrounding reefs. And ongoing operations will require an exclusion zone for divers and snorkelers.
The rationale for the cruise pier is explained by this recent comment on Trip Advisor: "This super fast (ferry) turned super lame. Because the ship can't dock they have smaller boats to take you to the island. The line to get on the tender took forever, the ride to the island takes about 20 minutes. So for everyone on a day cruise by the time you get on the island, get to the beach, and pee in the ocean, it's time to go."
Fact is that both the cruise pier and the golf course - if it is ever built - will negatively impact the main reasons people come to Bimini in the first place, which is to fish and dive. And what happens if the cruise/casino business model proves unsustainable, or if Genting decides to refocus on Miami? Or if a hurricane destroys the facility? Will the jetty simply be left to break up and damage the reefs? Is there a bond that requires dismantling it?
Quite apart from the obvious environmental and social concerns, the business model itself is beyond me. There are already eight betting operations in Broward and Miami-Dade counties (like Flagler Dog Track and Gulfstream Park) all with slot machines. There are a similar number of tribal casinos - the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood being 14 times larger than the one in Bimini. And more casinos in South Florida are still in the cards.
On the cruise to Bimini, gambling commences as soon as the ship reaches international waters three miles out from Miami. Passengers can play 148 slot machines and 23 tables of blackjack, baccarat, roulette and craps. There are also casinos in Nassau and Freeport. So why is a casino on this tiny island, fuelled by a massive long-term influx of cruise passengers, deemed to be such a necessary and desirable thing - for either the developer or the country?
Ever putting the cart before the horse, this past summer the government announced it had hired an American consulting firm called EDSA to master plan both North and South Bimini. And Genting says it is expanding the airport and planning a clean-up and facelift for the settlements of Alice Town and Baley Town - which sorely need them. EDSA's report is expected later this year.
"Genting obviously feels their model can work," Investments Minister Khaalis Rolle told me. "But how do you gauge the right level of development? We do not yet have the kind of integrated approach that can manage all the conflicts. The government is now trying to calibrate a new reality in terms of the development process by implementing a system of national planning."
A planning unit is indeed being set up in the Ministry of Finance, and an Inter American Development Bank consultant has produced terms of reference that are now under review. Consultants will then be contracted to draft a national development plan for the Bahamas.
"This will not just be a document that will sit on a shelf. We will involve local experts who will shadow the consultants and who will be responsible for execution and implementation of the plan. We want the whole thing codified in law," Rolle said.
That's all very well, but why the secrecy surrounding Bimini Bay? What about a seabed lease? Where are the permits? Why aren't the obvious and immediate environmental issues being addressed? Why isn't the Bahamas National Trust being consulted? Where is the transparency?
And more to the point, the 2010 Planning and Subdivision Act was intended to address these issues throughout the Bahamas by consolidating all aspects of town planning and development, while expanding public participation in the approval process. This law mandates land use plans for every island, based on a national land development policy that is yet to be promulgated. How does Bimini Bay fit into this legislation?
Quite apart from the scale and insensitivity of Bimini Bay, the business model just doesn't make sense to me. Last year, Rav Bahamas' total investment so far was put at $250 million. And since then Genting has invested $70 million in a cruise ship, $24 million in the casino, and is spending another $150 million on the hotel. Such massive investment seems financially unsustainable without huge numbers of visitors over many years. But then, I am just a poor journalist.
Meanwhile, driving your golf cart through Bimini Bay is like being in Coral Gables without the traffic. The basic resort appears to be reasonably successful with most of the units sold and new homes still under construction. And obviously some of this money has trickled down into the community.
Although the project is completely insensitive to both the natural environment and the character of the island, it's something we could live with - and something that has been reproduced throughout the country over the years.
What is harder to understand is the apparent overriding goal to spend a ton of money creating something that is so totally out of whack for a place like Bimini - and, at the same time, to carelessly trash the environment on which your business success ultimately depends.