By Clunis Devaney
NASSAU, Bahamas – A Government Minister declared on Thursday (December 20, 2007) that “exciting things” are planned in 2008 for the economy of Freeport, Grand Bahama.
Minister of Maritime Affairs and Labour, Senator the Hon. Dion Foulkes said in the Senate that “there is light at the end of the tunnel” for the current depressed state of Freeport’s economy. He did not elaborate.
Meanwhile, Senators on Thursday completed debate on an Appropriations Bill, which enables former employees of the Royal Oasis in Freeport to be paid $4 million in severance pay.
On Thursday, severance payments were made to hundreds of those former Royal Oasis workers.
Senators were unanimous in their support of the Bill for an Act for the appropriation of further diver sums of money for and toward the defraying the expenses of the Government of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas during the fiscal year commencing July 1, 2007 and ending June 30, 2008.
The Bill seeks permission from the Senate to permit the Government to charge against the Consolidated Fund a total of $8 million, which is broken out into two separate areas:
• Four million dollars to complete the payment of former employees of Royal Oasis (a major resort) in terms of severance pay that is due to them;
• To live up to a commitment in the agreement with the Harcourt Development (Bahamas) Limited to make a contribution of non-matching marketing support to the development of $4,000,000, which comes to a total of $8,000,000.
Minister Foulkes moved the Bill for its second reading and committal.
He reminded Senators that before the Royal Oasis closed, there were more than 1,500 persons employed at that hotel, which for a number of decades was the anchor property for Grand Bahama.
“It was in fact, other than the Government, the single largest private employer on Grand Bahama,” said Minister Foulkes. “Shortly after the 1992 elections, the first Free National Movement (FNM) government approved the purchase of this property by the Driftwood Group. As part of this agreement, the Hotel Corporation of the Bahamas agreed not to charge a management fee, but insisted on continuing to levy the gaming tax.
“The Driftwood Group agreed to spend $21 million on renovation and upgrading of the property, and this was to be completed within 30 months. The Driftwood Group undertook to operate as a growing concern and keep all employees employed, and if there were to be any lay-offs that the lay-offs comply with the industrial agreement with the Bahamas Hotel Catering and Allied Workers Union and the provision of the Employment Act.”
Minister Foulkes emphasized that the renovated Driftwood hotel opened a couple of weeks after the May 2002 general election.
Then came hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and hurricane Wilma in 2005, he noted.
Minister Foulkes said that as a result of significant damage suffered to the hotel’s property, the hotel was forced to close.
“After Wilma in 2005, it became clear to the then Progressive Liberal Party administration that the hotel would not re-open under the current owners,” he stated. “The PLP government began a search for new owners.
“The PLP government announced a few days prior to the 2007 general election that the Government had entered into an agreement with the Harcourt Group for the sale of the hotel. At the time, the Government paid $4.7 million in partial severance payments.
“I think the formula that was used at the time was that all persons owed under $8,000 were paid in total. All employees owed severance payments over $8,000, half of that money was paid. So, pursuant to the agreement that was made by the former government, the FNM government is now fulfilling payment to all of those employees who are eligible for their severance payments.
“The balance that is due to the former employees is the reason for this Bill.”