|By Hannah Sampson, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 26, 2010 --ALICE TOWN, Bimini -- There is no casino here at the Bimini Big Game Club, but the people behind the rebirth of the historic hotel and marina are doing plenty of gambling.
The South Florida-based group reopened the 74-year-old Bahamas resort as a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort & Marina as hurricane season loomed, oil gushed in the Gulf and a recession hangover persisted throughout the Caribbean. At the Alice Town hotel, a mere 50 miles from Miami, foreclosure proceedings are still awaiting a final resolution. So Mark Ellert, president of Guy Harvey Outpost and a South Florida real estate veteran, uses terms like "hold our breath," "knock on wood" and "calculated risk."
He and his partners are banking on the reputation of artist and conservationist Guy Harvey, a renewed appetite for tourism from the United States and the ability of the 51-room getaway to carve out a niche as an environmentally conscious property.
And -- if the wood-knocking and breath-holding pay off -- they hope to expand the brand.
In 2008, the Big Game closed in the wake of financial woes. Following $3.5 million in renovations, this first Guy Harvey Outpost opened its marina, restaurant and pool in late May; spruced-up hotel rooms followed in mid-July. A grand opening event Saturday includes a fishing tournament, reopening ceremony and live music by the pool.
First opened in 1936 as a dinner club when Ernest Hemingway frequented the island, the resort has hosted celebrities including Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Lana Turner and Martin Luther King Jr. While Hemingway -- who wrote about Bimini in his novel Islands in the Stream -- likely drank at the Big Game, it wasn't a hotel yet when he visited the island.
UPS AND DOWNS
Since then, Bimini has become known as a staging ground for major fishing tournaments and the downfall of a political career. In 1987, Democratic presidential hopeful Gary Hart boarded the now-infamous Monkey Business for a yachting jaunt to the island and got caught on camera with companion Donna Rice on his lap.
But in recent years, Bimini has hit hard times.
In late 2005, a devastating crash of Bimini-bound Chalk's seaplane over Miami Beach killing all 20 aboard; most were Bimini residents. A year later, The Compleat Angler, where Hemingway stayed, burned down. The closing of the Big Game in 2008, long owned by the Bacardi family before entering a chain of ownership handoffs and eventually foreclosure proceedings, was yet another hit.
The Big Game Club's new management team decided now was the time to reopen, rather than letting the property deteriorate further.
"I do think people are beginning to come up out of their foxhole," Ellert said. "People are increasingly stressed for time and short vacations are de riguer. A quick weekend to Bimini sort of fits that bill."
David Johnson, deputy director of tourism for the Bahamas, said the strategy kept the essence of the hotel, which he called "the center of modern Bimini."
"Their vision was not to change but rather to embellish upon what's there naturally," he said.
For Harvey, the vision has gills and fins. He's most excited about the resort's partnership with a shark research lab in Bimini. Researchers will come to the restaurant on a weekly basis and talk to guests about their work in a program that Harvey hopes will increase awareness and shark safety.
"It's a very good vehicle for marine education," said Harvey, known for his art depicting marine life and research institute that is connected to Nova Southeastern University.
Still to come: a theater for educational programs and DVD viewing, fitness center and spa, new restaurant, Hemingway lounge -- and other Outposts still to be announced.
So far, the resort is getting a warm reception with visitors like Larry Salas, who owns a real estate company in Miami and has spent summers in Bimini for the last 10 years. He stopped by the restaurant recently and remembered his own history with the hotel six years ago: "Bed bugs. . .that's how terrible the place was."
He said he liked the changes.
"Now it's more upscale," said Salas, 51. "You still have the old Big Game flavor."
If all goes according to plan, the Guy Harvey brand will expand to Florida, the Caribbean and elsewhere in the Bahamas, said Fort Lauderdale attorney Charlie Forman, another partner in the venture.
"Our goal is not to go around the Bahamas buying a lot of property, but to partner with people who don't have the expertise," Ellert said.
That's good news for the Bahamas, where tourism accounts for more than half the economy and employs half its workers. More than 80 percent of its visitors come from the United States. A weak U.S. economy has serious impact on the island chain -- and is likely to dampen "prospects for a robust economic recovery over the coming years," according to a report by rating agency Standard & Poor earlier this year.
Tourist arrivals in the Bahamas declined 9.3 percent in 2009 compared to the previous year, said Scott Smith, senior vice president at Atlanta-based PKF Consulting. From January through May, tourism from the U.S. was relatively flat compared to the previous year, increasing just .1 percent.
"We think that the Bahamas and Caribbean in general will get back to prerecession levels by 2013 and 2014," Smith said.
Officials in the Bahamas say things are starting to improve. According to the latest figures released by the Bahamas Hotel Association, occupancy and revenues both increased this June compared to last at hotels that were surveyed.
ON THE UPSWING
And two resorts hit hard in recent years are showing an upturn. Sandals took over the former Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma, which closed last year, rebranding it as the upscale couples-only Sandals Emerald Bay, with 430 employees -- only 50 fewer than when it was a Four Seasons. On Paradise Island, where Atlantis laid off hundreds of workers in late 2008, owner Kerzner International recently announced more than $100 million in new projects and improvements over the next couple years that the company says will create about 400 additional jobs.
At the Big Game, where the majority of the renovation work was done by locals, the managers say they are glad to have opened at a time when they were needed.
"We didn't intend to launch in the middle of a recession, but I think it's a good thing," Forman said. "I think it's a better thing."
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