The Starwood Hotel Group, owners of the Sheraton chain of hotels, and the University of Miami have stepped into the competition for premium property at Invaders Bay in west Port-of-Spain. The major overseas investors, who said they got the go-ahead for their project under the last PNM administration, fear they are now getting a cold shoulder from the People's Partnership Government, but are vowing not to give up the fight.
M Falcon Group Ltd, a locallyformed company, comprising the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, developers Bizzi Group, based in Italy, and the Arjomand Group, from the oil-rich Middle East, has submitted a proposal to the Government to construct the Sheraton Columbus Towers at Invaders Bay. A medical tourism facility, the project will comprise three towers for a cancer centre, a 300-room hotel and a residence complex on 12 acres of land. Construction costs have been estimated at US$300 million.
The plan is expected to go before Cabinet today but, according to a statement from the Falcon Group, things are not looking too bright. "We heard that because we don't have any local people involved, we don't really have a lobby. We heard that's not how things work here," the statement added. The proposal is one of several submitted to the Government for the Invaders Bay Development Project. One involves the expansion of MovieTowne, owned by local businessman Derek Chin. His proposal is also before Cabinet and there is concern he is being favoured by the Government. Invaders Bay comprises 192 acres of land and Chin is asking for 20 acres.
The source said M Falcon Group, comprising all the foreign players, was created specifically for the Invaders Bay project. Noting it has been four years since it began seeking approval for the project, the source said Falcon was approached by local investors, but it was agreed there should be no local participation. "The group comprises foreign groups that are publicly traded with very sophisticated operations. They prefer to be in a mix they are familiar with," the source explained.
It is understood that the group has already interviewed Geneva Construction, a French-based company that undertook the Port-of-Spain Waterfront Project, to build the Sheraton Columbus Towers. Contacted for a response, Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie, with whom Falcon has been communicating about their project, said: "All recommended investors were put through a due-diligence process initiated by an intra-disciplinary committee appointed by Cabinet to engage the recommended investors. "Any decision going forward will be determined by Cabinet on the basis of the due-diligence report." Tewarie said he was not in a position to comment on any individual investment.
He also said he had not received a letter from Republic Bank, dated July 24, 2012, stating it is eager to finance Falcon's project. He also said he did not get a letter from the University of Miami, also dated July 24, reconfirming its interest in the project. However, the group provided copies of the letters to the T&T Guardian. The Falcon source said the group was planning to "fight to the end" for Invaders Bay. "After four years we are not about to quit so easily," he added. He said all plans were in place to start construction immediately. Listing the ways the local economy would benefit from Falcon's project, the group's proposal said hundreds of locals would be employed during and after construction. Additionally they say the value of surrounding land would triple overnight and lure international investors who would not have previously considered T&T, the group claimed.
Tracing the start of the fight, the T&T Guardian was told in September 2008, under the former PNM administration, the group identified T&T as a strategic location for medical tourism. The main reasons were that most of the customers of the University of Miami came from Central and South America and T&T stood out in the Caribbean as financially stable in banking and there was a real need for an oncology centre, the source said.
(The Government announced last June its plan to build a national oncology centre by 2014. The privately- owned Brian Lara Cancer Treatment Centre became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that radiation overdoses had been administered to 218 patients). According to Falcon's proposal, cancer is a leading cause of mortality in T&T. "We identified a large influx of people coming from T&T to Miami for medical care," the source said. When the group came it presented the proposal for Invaders Bay to the then government, and its prime minister, Patrick Manning.
They were told Invaders Bay land fell under the Urban Development Corporation (Udecott) at the time and no project could go forward because of an enquiry into the state enterprise. In 2009, Falcon approached the government again but was told they were busy with the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference and the Summit of the Americas, hosted by T&T. "We were flying to T&T every three months," the source added. In March 2010, the matter went before Cabinet and a note was passed giving the okay for Falcon to negotiate for the land, the source said.
"Within two weeks Manning called the election and they lost," he said. Falcon then met with former Planning Minister Mary King in the new Government. "She said they were very interested but needed time, since they were new," the source added. In December 2010, Falcon was invited to present its proposal to 30 members of Cabinet. "We were told they would get back to us in ten days. Then King was fired." When they met Tewarie, his position was that the Government needed to be fair to everybody and interested parties should submit his package through the public tendering process, the source said.
He added: "We did so and in December 2011 got a letter stating we were one of three companies which met the required criteria. "Price Waterhouse did a due-diligence process with us in April and we were told that within one week the Government would get back to us. We haven't heard from them since." Noting that the Government has been talking continually about divestment and luring investors, the Falcon source asked: "Why is this not moving forward? Some of the best companies in the world are bringing this to them on a platter and after four years nobody can give us an answer. It's scary.