Wave of the future or paradise lost?

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Resort development is giving the Bahamas an economic boost, but some fear the islands will lose their charm

Resort development is giving the Bahamas an economic boost, but some fear the islands will lose their charm

Step off the twin-engine puddle-jumper onto the tarmac, and you’re on island time. Nothing moves too fast on Chub Cay. It doesn’t have to. That’s the charm of this tiny 1,000-acre island and the 700 others — some habitable, some not — that make up the Bahamas archipelago.

A few minutes’ drive from the tiny Customs office that doubles as the airport passenger lounge, Chub Cay Club is set like a gem along the edge of the Bahamas’ trademark turquoise waters. Its colonial-style villas are as modern inside as anything back home, and they are built to take 150-mph winds — a prudent feature of any new construction in the tropical Atlantic hurricane belt. The marina, designed for yachts to 200 feet, is a gateway to fishing, boating and diving, and a convenient stopover for yachts and megayachts cruising the islands.

The club, a Bahamian sportfishing getaway for 40 years, is getting a five-year, $250 million makeover, including the new marina, a two-story clubhouse and villas ranging from $1 million to $3 million. The resort will have its own electric-generation plant, a 100,000-gallon-a-day reserve-osmosis water plant, and wastewater treatment. This is the future of the Bahamas’ out islands.

A boom in resort development is opening these once largely undeveloped islands to well-heeled vacationers, retirees and second-home owners, and giving islanders a much-needed economic boost. Bahamian Prime Minister Perry Christie is encouraging the growth. Speaking at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last October, the prime minister praised The Ginn Company, an Orlando, Fla.-based resort developer, for the Bahamas’ biggest project to date: the $5 billion, 2,000-acre Ginn Sur Mer at West End on Grand Bahama.

Sur Mer’s 4,000 condos and 800 single-family home sites will be just 55 miles — a relatively short boat ride — across the Gulf Stream from West Palm Beach, Fla. A 10-year undertaking just now breaking ground, it will have all the amenities, plus some: 500-slip marina, two golf courses — one by Jack Nicklaus, the other by Arnold Palmer — a 55,000-square-foot casino, spa and fitness center, two theme parks, tennis and equestrian centers, restaurants, boutiques, children’s club, a convention center, and a Grand Canal with water taxis and gondolas tying it all together.

“They are building the largest resort in North or South America outside of Las Vegas,” says Jennifer Ehrman, a vice president at neighboring OldBahamaBay, which Ginn began managing Jan. 1. Ehrman says Ginn plans to buy Old Bahama and incorporate it into its West End plans.

“This will create thousands of jobs and enhance the stability of the country,” Christie says of the Ginn project. That is the bottom line for his government. Eighty percent of Bahamians live on New Providence, where the city of Nassau and most of the country’s businesses are.

“They’re trying to get the bulk of this development to take place in the out islands, create jobs there, and take some of the pressure off Nassau,” says Al Behrendt, who for 25 years has organized the Bahamas Billfish Tournament, which draws hundreds of U.S. boats.

The Bahamas is aggressively promoting tourism and boating, along with resorts and second-home developments, because they are relatively clean and low-impact industries. “God created the Bahamas primarily to show how pretty water can be,” Christie boasted to press at the Lauderdale show. “The Bahamas is a yachtsman’s paradise.”

And Christie wants to keep it that way, even as he woos developers. He says The Ginn Company had met and exceeded a high environmental standard, reflecting his and others’ concerns that out-island growth not destroy island beaches, waters and reefs.

“We have an obligation to protect the resources,” he says.

Christie says the Bahamas, with just 330,000 people and $6 billion in annual gross domestic product, is entertaining $20 billion in development proposals — many of them resort and second-home projects.

Retiring baby boomers flush with cash, in addition to the loss of developable oceanfront on the U.S. East Coast, are helping drive this explosion in island development. “The reality is there is no oceanfront to be developed on the [U.S.] East Coast — not this size,” says Greg Ulmer, a vice president of sales for The Ginn Company. “We’ve looked at it.” So Ginn plans to put its new resort on oceanfront a stone’s throw from the U.S. mainland.

A wave of retirements is expected to trigger a rush for second homes on the water in warm climes, and with undeveloped U.S. oceanfront so scarce the Bahamas are attractive, says Kaye Pearson, who put on the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show for decades and now is chairman of Chub Cay Associates, Chub Cay Club’s owner.

The cost of living in the Bahamas is cheaper than comparable resort areas of the United States, he says, and the islands are close to South Florida. “There’s always been the allure of an island atmosphere,” Pearson says. “This is the sort of thing that dreams are made of, to escape to your own private island.” Chub Cay, in fact, is all privately owned. Most Bahamian islands aren’t, but with 80 percent of the nation’s population on New Providence, the out islands are sparsely populated.

Pearson says more than 30 resort and second-home projects have been announced in the Bahamas, but just a handful are well under way, and he predicts that some of those still in planning will fall by the wayside.

“You have to be very careful when you invest in any of them to make sure that the property is going to be built in the time frame they’re saying,” says Ginger Hornaday, a Fort Lauderdale real estate agent and publicist who has represented Bahamas properties.

If investment in major infrastructure improvements is required — roads, water plants and sewage treatment facilities — it can delay projects or keep them on hold, she says. Labor shortages on the underpopulated out islands also are a problem, forcing companies to bring in Haitian and Mexican workers to do the construction. Recently, Hornaday says, there were 11,000 housing units approved for the Bahamas’ 700 islands, but only 1,000 are under construction.

Ginn had presold 250 properties in Sur Mer and expected to complete the first of its housing units — golf and bungalow villas — by year’s end, said Sur Mer’s Ulmer in November. “We’ve spent $150 million to date on it, and we’re just now breaking ground,” he says. “We’re funding it ourselves.” A major player, Ginn has 3,500 employees and 30,000 acres in four states under development or in planning, he says.

Pearson says that besides the Chub Cay Club, which has opened its new marina and was scheduled to complete its first 14 villas in March, other major projects well under way or recently opened include The Residences at Atlantis on ParadiseIsland, EmeraldBay in the Exumas, OldBahamaBay at West End, and BiminiBay on Bimini.

• The Residences at Atlantis, a 22-story, 495-suite oceanfront condominium-hotel, is scheduled to open in December. Developed by Turnberry Ltd., builder of Turnberry Isle Resort and Club in Aventura, Fla., The Residences is selling one- and two-bedroom suites for $700,000 to $3.5 million. Part of the Phase III expansion at the Atlantis resort, the hotel will have a pool, restaurant and 24-hour security. Residents have access to all of Atlantis’ attractions — casino, spa, fitness and sports center, boutiques, restaurants, beach, marina and 34-acre marine park, according to information on the company’s Web site (www.theresidencesatatlantis.com ).

• The centerpiece of 470-acre Emerald Bay on Great Exuma (www.emeraldbayresort.com ) is the five-star Four Seasons Resort, with its beach, pool, spa and fitness center, 18-hole Greg Norman-designed golf course, tennis courts, deli and small European-style casino. The resort is open, as is a separate 23-acre megayacht marina with swimming pool, lounge, spa and fitness center. The members-only Club of Emerald Bay and beach club, both associated with the marina, are scheduled to open soon. Four Seasons has built 18 $2 million to $4 million resort residences. The Emerald Bay complex also offers 45 oceanfront estate lots for sale — one of which recently fetched $6 million for lot and estate house — and 72 one- to three-bedroom villas priced at $995,000 to $2 million. Still to be developed is a marina village with condominiums, flats and townhouses, and golf-front townhouses.

• The 700-acre Bimini Bay (www.biminibay-resort.com ), 48 miles from Fort Lauderdale on Bimini, has a 136-slip marina, pool, children’s playground, spa, restaurant and 96 vacation rentals — condominiums, small loft-type units and single-family homes. The first phase of development envisions 320 residential units, and down the road a Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed golf course, fishermen’s village with retail shops, and a 250-room hotel and casino operated by the Conrad hotel chain. Condominiums start at $260,000, homes at $1 million, according to company sales literature.

• The 228-acre Old Bahama Bay Resort and YachtHarbour (www.oldbahamabay.com ), also at Grand Bahama’s West End, opened its 72-slip marina in 1999, its first 24 suites in May 2001. The Ginn Company, which owns 2,000 acres of neighboring land, began managing Old Bahama Bay Jan. 1 and will gradually buy up the development by exercising a lease option to buy, says Old Bahama vice president Ehrman. The resort has a pool, restaurants, massage pavilion and fitness center, and 49 beachfront sites and guestrooms. She says Ginn plans to dredge more canals and open more waterfront home sites for development. Quarter- to 1-acre lots have been reselling in Old Bahama Bay for $600,000 to $1.2 million. A second hotel at Bahama Bay also is likely now, she says.

• Another major player, Montana Holdings Ltd., a Nassau-based international real estate investment and development firm, has started building an 80-slip marina on Rum Cay in the southern Bahamas, part of the first phase of a 10-year, $700 million resort development on 900 acres. Plans include a marina village with shops and restaurants, spa, sports center, 100-unit condominium-hotel with 80 cottages, and condominiums, townhouses, estates and villas on the ocean and around the marina. The marina is expected to grow to 200 slips and is designed to accommodate yachts larger than 200 feet (www.rumcay.com ).

• Historic Alice Town on Bimini, where such legends as Ernest Hemingway, Capt. “Papa” Chalk, Mike Lerner and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell used to hang out, also is getting a makeover. Bimini Heritage Ltd. plans a spring opening for Browns Hotel & Marina (www.brownshotelandmarina.com ) as part of its new Heritage Village, with seawall and 300 feet of boardwalk linking Browns to a restored Big John’s Hotel, with its Conch Shell Bar and the famous End of the World Saloon. Browns offers 217 one- to three-bedroom luxury condominium hotel-apartments and 17 marina slips from 50 to 140 feet. One of the many small “boutique” developments going up in the islands, units range in price from $300,000 to $1 million (penthouse suite), slip included. Developers expect Heritage Village to begin a revitalization of Alice Town.

• Port Terra Nova in Freeport, Grand Bahama, another boutique project, is a 29-unit townhouse development with pool and cabanas two miles east of Port Lucaya. Just off “Millionaire Row,” the 2,300-square-foot, two-bedroom townhouses start at $765,000, which includes a 45-foot boat dock.

The flood of development worries some who treasure the Bahamas for its cruising and remote, pristine out islands, where they find quiet and solitude. “A lot of the people who enjoy the Bahamas enjoy it because it doesn’t have what South Florida has in terms of supermarkets and congestion of the waters and so forth,” says tournament organizer Behrendt. “[The Sea of Abaco] could become in the not-too-distant future just like Biscayne Bay on a summer weekend.” He says, too, that intensive development is driving property values so high that it is out of reach of most Bahamians, and real estate and marina costs soon may be out of reach of many U.S. cruisers accustomed to going to the islands, as well.

Behrendt, owner of a 1985 Hatteras, has cruised extensively in the islands and doubts he will be joining the Bahamas land rush. “I personally enjoy the ability to move my condo,” he says.

He’ll keep cruising and exploring the undeveloped out islands.