The controversial Four Seasons hotel and private residences project at Clearwater Bay, St Michael has become a major campaign issue in the run up to this year’s general election, with the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) hinting at Government corruption in the sale of the property.
Speaking last night at a public meeting at Montgomery playing field in Cave Hill, St Michael, BLP leader Mia Mottley called on Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler to come clean on the sale of the stalled property, which a weekend media report indicated had been sold for US$60 million.
Mottley demanded to know when and to whom the money was paid, “if it was ever paid at all, then to whom was it paid?”
Sinckler had announced in Parliament in August 2016 that he had signed an agreement for the sale of the beachfront property and he expected part of the payment within two weeks.
“I can alert the House that I have formally signed the agreement on behalf of the Government for the sale of the Four Seasons project to the preferred investors. I did that a few days ago, and very shortly we will be having a debate in this House to discuss the details of everything that has gone under, including what is in that particular document,” he had said as he delivered the 2016 Financial Statement and Budgetary Proposals.
Soon after, in early September, the minister had promised reporters that he would present a comprehensive ministerial statement in the House of Assembly on October 25, 2016.
“We will speak in terms of the Government about what our commitments are in terms of what we have done in relation to everything that has taken place at the Four Seasons project since the Government got involved in 2008/9,” the Minister of Finance had said.
However, little has been said about the sale since, with the exception of Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy, who had indicated in February last year that a group that was interested in the property was at “a very advanced stage” of negotiations with Government for concessions, although he could not say when Government was expected to divest its interest in the 32-acre property.
In September last year Sealy had also reported that “a very naughty issue” had hindered progress, but it was likely to be untangled by the end of last year.
“That is a very naughty issue. It is complicated and it is something that we sincerely look forward to seeing something meaningful happen later on in the year,” Sealy had told journalists.
In the absence of any additional information from the Freundel Stuart administration, Mottley last night stopped just short of stating that something untoward had taken place.
“I will not tell the country in a Budget speech in Parliament [in August 2016] that I signed the agreement a few days ago but failed to tell them that the conveyance was signed on the 29th of December 2014, and it was registered in March 10th, 2015, a full 15 months and 18 months before you tell us you signed something a few days ago, Chris Sinckler.
“I will not be the kind of leader who signs and have people sell property belonging to the Government and you read about it . . . Chris Sinckler,” she told the gathering in St Michael North, a constituency held by the BLP’s Ronald Toppin since 1994.
The Four Seasons project began experiencing difficulties in late 2008 as more than half of the villas, priced at $11 million to $18 million apiece, remained unsold and buyers who had made deposits of between ten per cent and 40 per cent stopped making additional payments. Among the prominent buyers which the villas attracted were composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, Formula One team owner Eddie Jordan and Simon Cowell, whose villa spanned two plots and cost $32 million.
After two previous attempts by the developers to secure new financing had failed, the then David Thompson-led Government announced in January 2010 it would guarantee a $60 million loan from ANSA Merchant Bank to help restart construction. Some of the money was to go toward paying off a previous $31.5 million loan from the Bank of Scotland used to buy the resort’s 32-acre site. “I am pleased to support an initiative where Barbadians pull together to put an iconic project back on track–one that will help shape the future of tourism in Barbados,” Thompson, who died later that year, had said at the time.
The project became even more uncertain in 2015 when the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) withdrew its support, cancelling $160 million in loans it had committed to the venture more than two years earlier. The IDB, which had agreed to fund construction of the hotel component, made the decision due to concerns about the lack of progress.
Mottley, who sometimes became hoarse, spent a large part of her 45-minute speech introducing herself as the kind of leader she would be if the BLP were to win the election.
She painted a picture of someone who has been groomed by various party stalwarts over the years, suggesting she would be a lot more competent and transparent that the Stuart administration.
Quoting everyone from Jamaicans Bob Marley and Buju Banton to scripture, she also sought to show she would be a caring leader.
“Let it be known that wherever there is human suffering in this country, and wherever there are people without a voice, we are going to be there. And it might not be easy to solve it, but we are going to work our darnedest to solve it for the people of this country,” Mottley said.