|By Jim Wyss, The Miami
HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Aug. 28, 2006 - BIMINI, Bahamas -- For decades, all it has taken to lure tourists to this Bahamian island 48 miles east of Florida has been clear water, world-class fishing and the lack of just about everything else.
So Lloyd "Duda" Edgecombe, a Bimini district council member, questions the wisdom of Miami developers who want to build a 250-room hotel, 18-hole golf course, 550-slip marina and glitzy casino on a flattened strip of sand once thick with marshes and mangroves.
The project, the Bimini Bay Resort and Casino, is far from the largest development in the Bahamas, but it's massive by Bimini standards. It will ultimately cover a tenth of the island, and developers promise it will create jobs for the entire population of 1,700.
But some critics worry it's also an example of how such mega-projects threaten the environment and the traditional island lifestyle that beckons visitors to places like Bimini in the first place.
Just a two-hour journey by fast boat from South Florida, or a 20-minute flight, Bimini has always been a world away. Over the years, personalities such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and author Ernest Hemingway -- who wrote of its "gin clear" waters -- have been lured by Bimini's island vibe and sportfishing culture.
Now the world is coming to Bimini. Led by RAV Bahamas, a subsidiary of Miami's Capo Group, the $850 million project will eventually cover about one square mile of this 9.5-square-mile island. The upscale resort will include a hotel managed by the Conrad Hilton chain, a shopping court with a Starbucks and a casino with a 10,000-square-foot gambling floor.
About 140 houses and condos have already been built -- and sold -- as part of the development, and the construction site is teeming with earthmovers and backhoes racing to build about 350 more. There is a two-year waiting list to purchase homes.
WILL IT BE THE SAME?
Though many Bimini residents are encouraged by the prospects of new jobs, others wonder whether Bimini will still be Bimini once the project is complete.
"There are golf courses and casinos in Nassau, Freeport and all over the United States, so why do we need one here?" Edgecombe asked. 'We don't want the project shut down, but we need to ask ourselves, 'Is this project the right size for us?' "
The head of Bimini's tourism office, Norma Wilkinson, said most of the island's 48,000 visitors last year came from South Florida. But if the island hopes to generate year-round tourism and steady jobs for the locals, she said Bimini needs the additional attractions -- and hotel rooms -- that Capo is bringing.
The developers are financing the project themselves and are counting on the high-end real estate and luxurious amenities to keep luring buyers and tourists from South Florida. After all, Bimini is closer to South Florida than Orlando, points out Capo Group partner Sean Grimberg.
"We're building Bimini as Miami's next playground," he said. "And it's just a hop, skip and a jump away."
But some locals are concerned it's a playground where they might not be welcome. Last year, RAV Bahamas built a massive concrete archway across Bimini's sole north-south road, which leads to the northern third of the island and popular public beaches.
Developers say the arch is merely decorative, but locals have picketed the guarded gate, fearing it's an attempt to keep them away from the new Bimini Bay community, with its neat rows of pink and blue houses and cobbled roads.
Life beyond the gate may be out of reach anyway, said Ashley Saunders, a local historian and district council member who supports the project, hoping it will ease the island's steep unemployment.
"We may be up there as workers, but I don't think too many [residents] will be enthusiastic about going up to the place and spending money," he said.
With studio apartments starting at about a quarter-million dollars, Saunders doubts any Bimini resident could afford to live there.
"I think we'll have two Biminis," he said from Dolphin House, his traditional coral rock home. "The old Bimini down here and the new Bimini up there."
But what's good for tourists is good for the entire island, said Capo Group Chairman Gerardo Capo. Already, Capo has built a 300,000-gallon water desalinization plant that is providing the entire island with fresh water for the first time in decades.
The company also has donated 50 computers to schools and is bringing in educational consultants to create a curriculum that will prepare high school graduates for some of the 1,500 jobs Bimini Bay expects to create.
For all the talk of jobs, however, some think the project has generated precious few. RAV Bahamas says it recently employed about 100 Bimini residents, but admits that the vast majority of its 300 construction workers -- who have been on the job for more than two years -- are from Latin America. Capo said the construction jobs are temporary and that he is more concerned with training islanders for permanent, skilled jobs, which will come on line as more owners move into the homes and condos.
But Edgecombe is unconvinced.
"If this project really is for the Biminites like they say, then why aren't we at full employment?" he said, noting that unemployment in Bimini is about twice the national average of 10 percent. "Instead, the government is allowing them to bring in cheap foreign labor and that's disgraceful."
There are also concerns about Bimini's ecological health.
Environmental groups complain RAV Bahamas has destroyed mangroves and dredged the seabed to build the foundations for the new condos and houses.
Capo said about 50 acres have been added to the island through dredging and filling efforts. The company has spent more than $1 million on environmental impact studies, he said, and all the construction has been sanctioned by the government's environmental authorities.
But not everyone is convinced the government is right.
Last year, a long-time Bimini shark researcher and University of Miami professor, Samuel Gruber, resigned his post as a member of the Bahamas National Trust, a body dedicated to protecting the island's natural resources, to protest the government's approval of the project.
In 2005, "I watched a bulldozer in two feet of water remove mangroves by the acre in a healthy, viable wetland," he wrote in his resignation letter. "How sad it is that the Bahamas, a world leader in the area of marine conservation, should have authorized such an egregious act."
Bahama's ambassador for the environment, Keod Smith, the nation's top environmental official, did not respond to several interview requests.
Bimini's mangroves are the breeding and nursing grounds for more than 140 marine species, including some of the game fish that draw anglers from all over the world, said Alfredo Quarto, the executive director of the Mangrove Action Project, based in the state of Washington.
WON'T DESTROY IT
RAV Bahamas claims the grumbling comes from a small but vocal minority. The developer also points out that the project has already been scaled back once -- in part, to spare mangroves along the eastern banks of the property.
"Bimini's environment is what brought me to the Bahamas to begin with," Capo said. "So why do you think I am going to destroy it?"
Jim Summerlin, who owns a wholesale car dealership in Miami, is sold on the project. He bought two properties in Bimini Bay about a year ago and says he has seen prices on the island rise ever since.
"I'm very happy with the investment," said Summerlin, who visits the island a few times a month. "And there's no telling what it's going to be like once the casino and golf course goes in."
But Annett Saunders, a Bimini resident who makes pottery and ceramics for tourists, said it was depressing to see bulldozers and work crews along the beaches leading to isolated fishing spots and the "Healing Hole" water springs.
"That's what people come to Bimini for," she said. "But they're trying to re-create Miami at that end of the island."
Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald
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