Struggle over tallest hotel in Turks

BY NEKIESHA REID Business reporter

Friday, September 07, 2012    

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SINCE tourism began there 30 years ago, the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) have focused on keeping the environment low density and “exclusive”.

This includes the construction of upscale, boutique hotels that, according to the country’s National Development Plan, should go no further than seven storeys high.

The intimacy provided by these small properties, along with pristine beaches and a “reasonably unspoiled” environment, have attracted elite customers, while turning tourism into the country’s number one trade.

But the proposed construction of buildings that include a hotel four times higher than allowed under current legislated may change the type of visitors to the islands — a concern held by locals opposed to the development.

But the project is not a bad thing, said developer Hugh McLean.

“The arrival of business executives and owners for conferences is entirely compatible with the current boutique hotel model,” he said.

Business travellers can only boost the tourism product, he said, since they travel all year round and are from “the affluent middle class” and “will have an overwhelming positive impact on the economy of the islands”.

Under TCI law, public feedback is required if any change is to be made to the country’s Development Plan.

At a public forum in July, the proposal was criticised by most of the people who attended, primarily for the buildings being too high, according to local information website reported that.

In addition to the 28-storey European Plan hotel, the facility would have two, 22-storey buildings and would house 200 hotel rooms; 400 condominiums; a 1,200-sq-ft conference centre; three restaurants; a spa; retail and commercial space; and a racquet club with stadium seating.

Under public pressure, McLean subsequently offered to compromise on the height of the buildings “provided that an agreement is reached early”.

However, it is not clear exactly how many storeys will be shaved off each, especially since earlier this year, he said, “something significantly less than 28 storeys will not be economically feasible”.

“A 600-seat conference centre would provide many benefits but to succeed requires 800-900 hotel rooms,” the former attorney said, which means the development has to exceed the seven-storey maximum mandated by law.

However, “we will work with local planning and environmental experts to ensure our development is as unobtrusive as possible”, he said.

According to the Turks and Caicos Weekly News, Governor Damian “Ric” Todd — who will make the final decision — said public views on height and location will be part of his assessment.

The buildings would have been built on prime beachfront property in the upscale Grace Bay community on the island of Providenciales.

In addition to the feedback from the public meeting, government consultations — which ended about two weeks ago — will be used to decide if the project goes forward, the paper reported.

Residents are not the only ones anxious for a decision.

“This is the most drawn-out process my development partners have ever encountered,” McLean said in a press release, adding that “other jurisdictions are offering a warm welcome”.

McLean, who owns 50 per cent of the project, came under attack earlier this year because locals did not think the proposed development would translate into jobs for them.

Because of TCI’s Development Plan, local contractors and construction workers are unfamiliar with building higher structures.

This inexperience, residents said, would effectively ensure that no local contractors could work on the facility if the proposal is accepted.

Depending on how many storeys the developers have agreed to take off, locals may still not be able to get any of the 500 construction jobs McLean said would be available.

However, of the 1,000 total jobs offered through the project, he said 75 per cent is pledged to locals.

“Our project is about jobs, management opportunities and a chance for Turks and Caicos islanders to be empowered and get ahead,” he said.

Even with this pledge, the country is almost split down the middle with supporters and critics.

“What we have seen so far is equal support and opposition for the development,” Todd said.

But major industry players have come out in support of the proposal.

“We have to embrace the changing times,” TCI’s director of Tourism, Ralph Higgs, said, noting that less space in the Grace Bay area means buildings should be going up instead of wide.

The project should be welcomed, he said.



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