By G.A. Dwyer Astaphan
For centuries, the Southeast Peninsula of St. Kitts has been relatively undeveloped.
It measures about 6.25 square miles in area and makes up about 9% of the land mass of the entire island. It is a significant part and portion of our tiny country.
For centuries, it had sat in the hands of a relatively small number of owners, maybe 40 from time to time, with sales taking place occasionally. An exclusive, pristine haven for the wealthy, with virtually no benefit for ordinary folks.
For centuries, its owners basically sat on it and kept the country waiting. A speculator’s dream maybe, but a population’s nightmare.
Fast forward to the 1980s.
The Government of the day announced that it would build a road to the end of the Peninsula. Land prices shot up. And while some sales took place, there was, again, little benefit to the country. Instead, the old game continued.
The group which developed the Four Seasons Hotel on Nevis bought a large parcel on the Peninsula, not necessarily to develop it, but to block anybody else from doing so until they could recoup their investments in the Four Seasons.
And the people of this country were made to wait some more.
Then in the 1990s there was another ripple of land sales, and expectations were raised, but again nothing worked out. And we waited.
In 2005, the Douglas Government announced a deal with Auberge Firesky for the construction of a 250-room luxury Whispering Head Resort, plus a spa, several restaurants, a championship golf course, and 750 luxury residences.
Once again the country’s hopes were raised. But once again, nothing visible happened. More waiting for the people of St. Kitts & Nevis.
Then in 2006, the Government acquired 852 acres of land in the area to turn over to the developers. In quick time, the land holding would grow to 2,500 acres, which is just under 4 square miles in area….over 5% of the total land mass of St. Kitts. That’s a lot of land, especially on a tiny island, in a tiny country, like ours.
At the time, a politician boasted that this project would pump US$20 billion into this country’s economy over a period of 20 years.
That was in 2006. Today, 10 years later, he’s out of office, and we’re still waiting.
Then in 2007, Mr. Charles Pinckney ‘Buddy’ Darby rolled his South Carolina entrepreneurial machine named Kiawah into town, and joined in the big deal with Auberge Firesky and J. B. Turbidy.
We were told that they’d bring in US$600 million to build a marina, a golf course, three hotels, including a Mandarin Hotel and the same Whispering Head Resort, as well as restaurants, commercial facilities and 2,000 residences.
This ambitious project would be called Christophe Harbour.
The Government of the day (of which I was a member) bought collectively, wistfully and gullibly into the vision. And we gave the developers a package of concessions and powers tantamount to creating a separate principality under their rule on this island’s Southeast Peninsula. A principality bigger in area than the Vatican or Monaco.
It was disgraceful, and a sell out. And if you doubt me, ask the present Government to publish the details of the deal.
Meanwhile, we saw some earthworks and little bits and pieces here and there, but we didn’t see massive things happening.
And, for the thousandth time, we waited.
Then in 2008, Auberge Firesky pulled out of the deal. In and out in 3 years, and probably at a nice profit. Speculate, speculate, speculate!
The Kiawah folks said that they would carry the project to completion.
And we waited.
In mid-2013, a U.S. company named South Street Properties bought Kiawah but they didn’t want to be involved in Christophe Harbour, so they sold it to the Darby Investment Group led by Buddy Darby after a business split between him and his family.
A significant chunk of the financing to get Mr. Darby into this new deal came from our own SIDF which was given shares in the project until repayment of its loan to the Darby Group. Some more on that in a bit.
Also in mid-2013, Range Developments began construction of the high-end Park Hyatt Hotel at Banana Bay, an area that is part of the Christophe Harbour set up.
Give credit where credit is due. Range Developments have done a great job with the Park Hyatt, which, I’m told, is to open its doors early in 2017. I’ve visited the site, it’s busy, and the hotel will be impressive, God willing.
Yes, despite a number of silly and unnecessary obstacles that seem to have been thrown onto their path, the Range folks have developed the only hotel at the Southeast Peninsula, and theirs is the only project of note in the area that has proceeded steadily.
Go see for yourself. Park Hyatt is there, almost done. But there’s no Whispering Head Resort. No Mandarin Hotel. No Tom Fazio Golf course. Where are the amenities for the marina which should’ve been done some time ago? Yes, there are slips at the marina, but what you may see there is Mr. Darby’s luxury yacht, and little else.
This is too much like a bad ‘B’ movie.
Meanwhile, we’re still waiting.
Now we heard the claim by Buddy’s people that sales in 2013 had been great, the highest on record, and that sales in 2014 could possibly double those of 2013. I’m advised that land sales up to 2014 might have exceeded US$100 million.
If their sales were so good, then why did they get US $16 million from our SIDF, and, I’m told, another US$30 million from local banks? Was there a need for that? And if so, how come? And how do those numbers relate to what’s on the ground?
What will Ernst & Young, the international audit firm which has been commissioned by the Government to audit SIDF, say about the SIDF loan to Christophe Harbour? We shall soon find out.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that my understanding of ‘great’ sales is different from that of the Mr. Darby’s folks, because when the deal with SIDF was announced in March, 2014, they told us that 7, yes 7, private homes had been completed and another 16 were in various stages of design and construction. That’s 23 in total.
With all of those land sales, why only 7 houses had been built by March, 2014, and 16 in various stages of design and construction? Nothing is ‘great’ about that. Indeed, quite to the contrary, it’s miserable.
To tell you the truth, I’m not even sure that I’d find 23 completed homes if I checked it out today, 2 years after the deal was struck with SIDF and 9 years since Buddy Darby and his team first flew into town.
Remember, their plan going back to 2007 was to sell and develop 2,000 residences. If I give them the benefit of the doubt and agree that they’d completed 23 homes by 2014, that works out to be 3.3 homes per year, and at that rate it would take Mr. Darby’s team over 600 years to build all of the 2,000 houses down there.
The people of this country have had to wait for 400 years already. And must now wait for another 600 years? Wait for a thousand years altogether? Somebody crazy?
And if, as master developers of the area, the Darby Group can deliver only one hotel every 10 years, then it’ll take us 30 years to get three hotels.
That will be too late. Not acceptable. And for the solitary hotel that’s there and almost done, the bulk of the credit goes to Range Developments.
Look, if Mr. Darby has fallen short on the promises that he made to the Government nine years ago, then our leaders should responsibly and expeditiously remove this yoke from the backs of the people of this country.
We can’t wait no more, Buddy!!!