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Bermuda Wary of Boom; Now Importing Foreign
 Labor to Service 500,000 Tourists a Year
By Carol J. Williams, Chicago Tribune
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 11, 2005 - In a rare collective pause for reflection, the people of this prosperous mid-Atlantic island are debating whether they want to bust their own boom.

The envy of most nations, with per capita gross domestic product of $36,000 and 13,000 offshore businesses spending $1.5 billion a year, Bermuda's 65,000 people are facing the possibility -- some call it a threat -- of becoming another Hong Kong. Rents and living expenses here rival those in Hong Kong, a former British colony that reverted to China six years ago. Single-family homes and low-rise public buildings remain the rule, but developers are pushing a raft of multi-story apartment, condominium and office complexes. The median house price is almost $1.3 million.

"There's been a tremendous loss of open space and people have to decide now, does it make sense to focus development in Hamilton and go high-rise?" said Ross Andrews, who was sent by Britain to coordinate a sustainable development project for the island, which is a British overseas territory. "If Bermuda wants to be Manhattan in the sea, that can be done, as long as Bermudians recognize the trade-offs," he said.

The arrival last year of the island's first condos and increasing strains on water, power and waste management have spurred a virtual building freeze while Bermudians decide how much more growth the 21-square-mile island -- about the size of Pasadena -- can withstand. Town hall-style meetings are being conducted and a statistical profile and questionnaire have been delivered to all 25,000 households. The profile offers a sobering look:

--Bermuda is one of the world's most densely populated territories, with an average of about 3,100 people per square mile.

--Water use that was seven gallons daily per person in the 1960s is now 30 gallons each.

--The volume of per capita waste exceeds that of New York.

--There are 46,000 vehicles today, about 20 percent of which arrived in the last five years.

"Finally, the government is looking at the island and deciding, 'Oh boy, we're really having digestive problems. We're so overcrowded we're busting at the seams,' " said Erin Moran, a founding member of the Greenrock environmental group lobbying for moderation.

"Many people are coming to the island from the United States who are used to having two cars and taking 30-minute showers," said Moran, an acupuncturist trained in Seattle. "They're bringing their previous lifestyle and they just can't do that here."

Waste, growing 3 percent to 4 percent per capita a year, has been dealt with over the decades by burning trash, compressing metal and crushing glass, then using the compacted solids for landfill or as a base for road paving. But with 130 miles of roadway now linking every enclave on the island, there's no room for extension. Refuse must be exported, at skyrocketing expense even for this wealthy public.

Victims of their own affluence, Bermudians have had to import foreign labor for the thriving service industries catering to 500,000 tourists a year. With less than 5 percent unemployment, locals eschew blue-collar jobs in favor of professional and creative opportunities growing with the global business market. About one-fourth of the population now consists of guest workers, most from Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

"I go out to dinner sometimes now and I can't even tell what language is being spoken," Clevelyn Crichlow, a retired school administrator, complained at a meeting with community development officials. He echoed the concerns of many older Bermudians that the island's rapid growth was being fueled by "the greed factor."

A fishhook-shaped island discovered by a Spaniard in 1503, Bermuda was ignored by Spain for more than a century for its lack of fresh water. It wasn't populated until a British ship was wrecked on its shores in 1609 and the commander left a couple of sailors to stake a claim for Britain. Portuguese farmers from the Azores, fishermen from the North Atlantic and vacationing nouveaux riches industrialists from New York and New England accounted for the island's development until the 1980s. As tourism waned, corporate America moved into vacated hotel and resort complexes, taking advantage of Bermuda's tax-exempt status.

"We have localized pockets of air quality problems," said Thomas Sleeter, head of the Department of Environmental Protection. Although he shares concerns that too much expansion could overwhelm the island, he points out that Bermuda still retains its natural beauty and small-town feel, providing an unusual opportunity for a community to decide development issues before events overtake it.

Environmentalists, developers, business and community groups all have their own panels assessing continued expansion. Andrews expects the discussions to converge into a common vision for Bermuda's future by the end of the year. "At the end of the day," said Andrews, "quality of life trumps the standard of living."

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Copyright (c) 2005, Chicago Tribune

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