June 2000: Musing on business in the Caribbean
A common sight in the Caribbean is the evidence of large-scale business investments that have failed. Some of these, such as the ubiquitous sugar mill ruins in St. Croix and the salinas or salt ponds throughout the southern Bahamas, reflect changing times and markets. But others simply appear to be projects that never made it, or that made it for awhile, and then inexplicably died. In many cases, the infrastructure costs appear to have been appreciable, and it seems likely that many investors didn't even recoup their capital outlay.
In George Town, Exumas, for example, there is a beautiful little resort just north of town on the main road. It has the standard tiki bar, a beautiful beach, tennis courts, and what appear to be very nice accommodations. It also seems to have survived all the hurricanes, tropical storms, and winter gales in reasonable shape. It is closed, and we couldn't get a consistent answer as to why. It can't be that there is no market for resorts in George Town, as several established businesses are doing quite well, and new resorts are being constructed. The vague explanations we got for the failure of this particular venture involved drugs, uncertain ownership rights, and poor management, but we're not at all sure what the real story is.
Also in George Town, there's a cut through the 50-foot high limestone cliffs south of the harbor, forming a little lagoon inland. There is nothing in this lagoon, yet the expense of blasting through the cliffs to form it must have been enormous. Nobody seems to know why this was done.
But the most remarkable example we saw was the resort of Cape Eleuthera, where we stayed in the marina for three nights. The marina itself boasts a large basin completely walled in by concrete breakwaters and featuring concrete finger piers. The resort has perhaps 40 individual cottages as well as a bar/restaurant, tennis courts, and (ready for this?) an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course. Like many places in the Bahamas, it has its own air strip; this one was once capable of landing private jets. All of this is abandoned and overgrown. None of the cottages are livable, and most of their roofs have been missing since hurricane Floyd came through. The marina is the only continuing part of the enterprise, and its office is in a non-air conditioned shed with no telephone. The water pressure is intermittent, as the pump has to be coaxed back into operation every few hours. The concrete posts on the docks are showing stretches of exposed rebar. A Bahamian told us that you "can still see where the greens were" on the golf course.
We talked with some local Bahamians, and they regaled us with stories of what the resort was like 20 years ago. In addition to the fabulous golf course, there was a tennis school, with Chris Evert as the pro. On a Saturday night during the season, there would be no fewer than three bands playing, with hundreds of people dancing. Many were people you'd recognize from show business and high finance. Cape E was the "in" place of the entire Caribbean.
So what happened? The local Eleutherans we talked to just shrugged in response to that question. A white fishing captain based at the marina claims that the first "Black Bahamian government," as he calls it, was corrupt and venal, and basically the place got bribed out of existence. Whether this explanation reflects the truth or the captain's bigotry is unclear.*
The resort is owned by some Americans who are seeking financial backing to reopen Cape E Resort. They've cut away the underbrush around the cabins, and even promised air conditioning and a phone to the dock master at the marina. The same outfit also owns Princess Resort at the very southern tip of the island. This is a day stopover for the Princess Lines cruise ships, and features lots of beach, water-sport toys such as Sunfish sailboats and pedal boats, and little else. There's nobody there now, because there are no cruises during hurricane season, but during the winter it's quite busy. The ships' crews man the food and bar facilities, so there's not much work for the local folks there. Nothing like what Cape E once provided, in any case.
By the way, the nearby Robert Trent Jones golf course is said to be in excellent condition, though it's not clear where the customers come from. .