Only seven miles long, Guana Cay has fewer than 200 inhabitants – most living in a small village at the southeastern tip, facing Marsh Harbour. The 1100 acre cay has superb beaches with 30 hotel rooms and a growing number of vacation homes.
The largest development so far is Orchid Bay – a gated community on 250 acres offering waterfront lots priced at more than a million dollars. It has a 32-slip marina with a fuel dock. Nearby is Dolphin Beach Estates, an 11-acre community of second homers.
But the northwestern half of the island is mostly undeveloped. Until recently it was owned by German investor Ludwig Meister, who also operates the Treasure Cay Resort. Meister arrived in the Bahamas in the 1970s and made major property investments around the country.
Apart from a brief attempt at sisal production in the early 20th century, Guana Cay was a barely inhabited backwater until recent years, when upscale tourism led to the creation of a thriving second home economy throughout the Abacos. In fact, more visitors to Abaco stay in vacation homes than in hotels.
In the late 1980s Meister persuaded Premier Cruises to make his Baker’s Bay property at Guana Cay a port of call for the ‘Big Red Boat’, a cruise ship licensed by Disney. A channel was dredged into the bay and extensive shore facilities were built with little care for the environment.
When Premier dropped Guana Cay as a port of call in 1993, the shore facilities were simply abandoned. They are still there today – a deteriorating dock, dolphin pens, an open-air theatre, walkways, a dining hall, fuel dump, electrical transformers and wrecked jet skis among other leftovers.
Three years ago, a group of American investors got together to buy the 459-acre Meister property for a luxury resort community to be called Baker’s Bay Golf & Ocean Club. The heads of agreement for this project (signed by the prime minister last month) includes106 acres of crown land and 20 acres of Treasury land (private land forfeited for tax reasons).
More than half of this government land will be set aside for a nature preserve run by a specially-created public foundation. Another 12 acres will be used for infrastructure – a reverse osmosis plant, sewerage treatment plant, power station, waste disposal site and dry dock facilities. Eight more acres will be leased temporarily as a construction staging area. And 25 acres will be leased for the marina.
The developers expect to begin construction by the summer on the first phase of what is described as a “private residential resort and club membership community”. It will feature 210 single-family lots, 98 cottages and villas, a 28-room inn, a 240-slip marina with shops and restaurant, an 18-hole golf course and employee housing units.
This is somewhat akin to Kerzner’s Ocean Club Estates on Paradise Island, which has 121 home sites, a golf course, condos, marine access, a clubhouse and an upscale villa hotel. One-acre lots at Ocean Club Estates sell for over $3 million. However, opponents are quick to point out that Guana Cay is not Paradise Island.
They describe it as a remnant of the “Old Bahamas” – an island that is every escapist’s dream. There is full employment on the cay and its marine and land environments are relatively unspoiled. Many think it should be preserved as is, although this overlooks the impact of the ongoing poorly planned developments, and the fact that the Baker’s Bay property is privately owned.
The developers – Discovery Land Company of San Francisco (www.discoverylandco.com) – specialise in upscale golfing communities. They have built ecologically sensitive resorts in the Arizona desert, Mexico and Hawaii: “We are passionate about what we do,” a spokesman told Tough Call recently. “This is not a hobby. We try to apply the highest quality values to every project we build.”
The agreement with the government calls for retail operations, entertainment and visitor services at Baker’s Bay to be operated by Bahamians. A community centre for police and fire services, a clinic and Customs and Immigration facilities will also be built. And a five-acre waterfront park will be set up next to the nature preserve featuring a range of public facilities, including restrooms and a dock.
This first phase of the project will sink about $75 million. The second – set to begin in three years – will include a clubhouse, two restaurants, a swimming pool, tennis courts, spa, golf course and support facilities at a cost of some $30 million.
So the total investment by the developers for infrastructure and marketing is expected to be $175 million. After the construction of homes by lot owners, the overall investment in the project could reach $500 million.
That’s a lot of money by any standard, as well as being a top-of-the-line prestige development for Abaco. So what’s all the fuss about?
Well, uppermost in many minds is the lifestyle change that such a development will bring about on a small island like Guana Cay. There will be hundreds more residents and service personnel – and a lot more traffic and activity. In other words, development is good – but not in my back yard.
The project will support 200 jobs both during and after construction – a goodly number for a region with a total population of only 13,000. And the wealthy second homers will inject huge sums of money into the Abaco economy, generating lots of spin-offs.
But does this prospect justify such a vocal, sustained and well-financed opposition to the project? After all, if we had avoided such things in the past, we wouldn’t have Lyford Cay, or Paradise Island, or Blair Estates, or Freeport – to name just a few places that we all take for granted today.
So is it the type of change that will take place at Baker’s Bay? Most enlightened citizens would agree that if development is to occur in our islands it must be well managed, something that has not often happened in the past. And one of the most important goals should be to minimise environmental harm. This only makes sense, because it is usually the pristine environment that inspires a development of this kind in the first place.
The irony here, some say, is that the Baker’s Bay developers are being accused of raping the environment when from all appearances they are making the greatest effort of any recent investor to establish and implement sound guidelines and practices.
A top Florida marine scientist with close ties to the Bahamas agreed to undertake the Baker’s Bay environmental impact assessment, which is now under review by the BEST Commission. University of Miami marine biologist Dr Kathleen Sullivan Sealey is an expert in coastal zone protection. For the next three years she will also be dean of the School of Science & Technology at the College of the Bahamas.
Meanwhile, residents opposed to the project have hired their own marine scientist to review the EIA. Dr Michael Risk of McMaster University in Canada recently said that “if operated to the standards outlined in the EIA, this project should operate at the highest levels of environmental stewardship. This is as it should be…the development will forever change the cay, bringing a ten-fold increase in population.”
These standards are pretty comprehensive. For example, the golf course will slope inland to prevent nutrient runoff into the sea and will be irrigated by recycled water circulated through lined ponds, proper coastal setbacks will be strictly observed, roads will be narrow and winding, native plants will be preserved and propagated, invasive plants will be removed, the wetland known as Joe’s Creek will be set aside, the Disney facilities will be cleaned up, sewerage will be treated at a central plant, and solid waste will be carefully managed.
But those opposed to Baker’s Bay are unimpressed and have formed a ginger group known as the Save Guana Cay Reef (www.savegaunacayreef.com). On their web site they condemn the government for giving away public land and approving construction of a golf course and marina that they say will destroy the island’s mangrove creeks and coral reefs.
The reality is that many of the environmental issues they raise apply generally to development throughout the Bahamas and are being examined and dealt with publicly for the first time in a coherent way. This is a good thing, as a brief comparison with Bimini Bay will show (www.biminibayresort.com).
The island of (north) Bimini is also seven miles long, with a mangrove lagoon that is the only fish nursery in the region. In 1997 the government approved a project by Cuban-American Gerardo Capo to build a thousand hotel rooms, a 20,000 square foot casino, a golf course, 500 condos, 600 home sites, apartments, a commercial/entertainment centre and a 400-slip marina.
Even if you have never been to Bimini, it would be obvious that this is an inappropriate development. It is an unimaginative attempt to transplant a South Florida suburb to a small Bahamian island. And although the project has been scaled back due to public pressure, the developer continues to bulldoze the mangroves and dredge the lagoon for cheap fill.
Other commentators have pointed to the 470-acre Emerald Bay development on Great Exuma, which features an upscale hotel with golf course, conference centre, 45-acre marina, 6,000-square-foot casino, and hundreds of condos and home sites. The impact of such a large resort with its attendant infrastructure all being built all at once in a small undeveloped community is a subject of ongoing concern.
And then there are the double standards of the politicians who are now making progressive decisions about Guana Cay, but who were just as bitter in their opposition to the development of the Clifton estate on New Providence. Had the Clifton project proceeded, the ruins and other environmentally sensitive areas would have been rehabilitated and preserved.
What these controversies highlight is the fact that we desperately need a transparent national development policy or strategy that both citizens and investors can buy into.
Real estate development has been closely linked to economic growth in the Bahamas since at least the 1920s, when H. G Christie got its start during the land boom that spilled over from Florida. And rapid growth in the 1950s and 60s was accompanied by a surge in property development throughout the country which produced much of what we are familiar with today. This included the most spectacular real estate success of all – the privately-owned, purpose-built city of Freeport.
There are legitimate issues with this development model, but many see no option. To mitigate environmental harm, they call for a comprehensive zoning plan over the entire country – in addition to in-depth environmental impact studies for every project: “We should protect important areas like wetlands and coastlines before everything gets butched up,” one realtor told Tough Call. “This will make property more valuable in the long run while conserving our natural resources.”
There is no doubt that the Bahamas needs legitimate deep-pocket investors to build the infrastructure and implement the environmental safeguards that the government cannot afford, and pays only lip service to. But this does not mean we should tolerate the destruction of communities and ecosystems through inappropriate and uncontrolled development.
Rather, it means the enforcement of sensible zoning laws and environmental guidelines, the setting aside of marine reserves and open public spaces – all within the context of an integrated land use plan. We need workable development models that are specific to small islands.
According to Dr Sullivan Sealey, “this requires leadership to make the planning, discussion, implementation and results transparent to the public as a living classroom in compatible development. What are appropriate construction methods? How can marinas be constructed to minimize long-term ecological damage or water quality degradation?”
And as Freeport lawyer Fred Smith wrote recently, “every day that we do not have a plan, or vision for our future, one more little piece of our culture, our heritage, our environment and our marine and land resources is irreplaceably lost and disappears into the hands of foreign and Bahamian developers.”
Mr Smith says we should redirect investments like Baker’s Bay to areas like Freeport or Treasure Cay where they can be better accommodated, and where they would produce the greatest economic gain to the country. Well, let’s discuss that principle.
He calls Guana Cay a “touchstone” for our future. If that is so, we need to do a helluva lot more thinking about what we want to achieve and how we should go about it. At the moment, the description that best fits our current approach to economic development is…well, ‘schizophrenic’.
It’s a tough call all around.
This article was first published in The Tribune on Wednesday, March 30, 2005.
The column ‘Tough Call’ by Larry Smith is published in The Tribune every Wednesday and is reprinted here as a courtesy. Mr. Smith founded and successfully grew an advertising agency over 20 years. Under his direction Media Enterprises diversified into short-run commercial printing and publishing, and is now the largest non-fiction book wholesaler in the Bahamas. He has 30 years experience as a journalist and publicist and has contributed numerous articles and columns to the Bahamian press. A former reporter at the Nassau Guardian, local correspondent for Reuters and editor at the Bahamas News Bureau, he conceived and edited the Bahama Almanac (published 2000 by Media Enterprises), wrote the commentary for Mike Toogood’s Portrait of an Archipelago (published 2004 by Macmillan Caribbean), and edited the Bahamas Environmental Handbook (published 2002 by the government). In 2003 he took a year’s leave of absence from Media Enterprises to lead a transition management team at the Nassau Guardian after the paper was acquired by local investors. After leaving the Guardian he was contracted by the Tribune as online manager/editor and columnist. He has a degree in political science and journalism from the University of Miami.