Outameni about-turn

Outameni about-turn

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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A little over two years after the National Housing Trust (NHT) spent $180 million to purchase the failed Orange Grove/Outameni attraction in Cooper's Pen, Trelawny, in what the auditor general determined was a buyout of a bad debt owed to a local merchant bank, the Government is looking to either sell or lease the 10-acre property, which remains shrouded in controversy.

Newly installed NHT Chairman Dr Carlton Davis made the revelation yesterday at a sitting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament. "The decision has not yet been taken, but it is the most likely decision," he stated.

"My own preferred orientation is to sell or lease the property as soon as possible. Out of an abundance of caution since, we created a Properties Review Committee. It was felt that we should give them the opportunity to see if there is some extraordinary alternative -- which I doubt very much -- so as to enable us to move very quickly to sell or lease the property. Hopefully, there are people around who would be interested in doing something useful with it," Dr Davis told the PAC.

Also, contrary to the impression given by the NHT board, he said it was "high unlikely" that the property would be used as an attraction.

This is an about-turn in the Outameni saga, which gripped the nation for months. In November last year, at the height of the controversy, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who has portfolio responsibility for the NHT, told Parliament that she could not instruct the board as to what to do with the property, but that the site was prime for the educational, cultural and tourist attraction, which she had been told the board was considering.

In the meantime, Dr Davis, for the first time, spoke publicly about the debacle which ensued after light was shone on the deal, stating: "This is not an approach that I would have taken in dealing with this matter... It is not an area within the NHT's core competence."

Opposition committee member Everald Warmington commended the board for having "recognised the mistake that was done, and correcting it", while his colleague, Karl Samuda, stated that, "It is a blessing that we have men of the calibre of Dr Davis at the helm right now, because this is such a mess".

Two months ago, Auditor General Pamela Monroe-Ellis sent a report to the House of Representatives which categorised the NHT's purchase of the property as a buyout of a bad debt owed by Orange Valley Holdings Limited (OVHL).

The Trust decided to purchase the property after the owners, OVHL, in November 2012, asked the NHT board to negotiate a deal to take over the debt on the property.

According to the findings of the auditor general, the then managing director, Cecile Watson, in her submission to the board said, "an urgency was created because of a provisionary order by the court to sell the home of the guarantors for the loan, and the final order was expected to be handed down on November 20, 2012 if Orange Valley Holdings failed to settle the debt".

By December, the board had agreed to the deal to buy the property for a little over half of its value, even though an assessment of the site was not done until January 2013. This was followed by a valuation in February, which put the property at $280 million, some $31 million less than the previous valuation that was done two years prior.

The Outameni saga rocked the NHT for weeks late last year, especially after it emerged that Lennie Little-White, a director of Orange Valley Holdings, had expressed fear that a scandal would erupt if the NHT had chosen not to operate the heritage attraction.

"This transaction begs for another scandal when the public learns that the NHT purchased the property for hundreds of millions of dollars and has now chosen to dismantle the attraction," Little-White said in a July 2013 letter to Watson.

"The site is built as a heritage attraction, which was architecturally designed to house this specific concept. It has limited usage otherwise," he wrote. "Neither history nor the taxpayers of Jamaica will ever forgive us."

Little-White appeared to have penned the letter in frustration, telling Watson that he had, during a November 2012 meeting with then NHT Chairman Easton Douglas, offered to continue managing the property "or act as a transitional consultant to any new operator" of the Trust's choice "for the future of the attraction".

As the drama unfolded, there were calls for the board to be sacked, but Douglas insisted that the board had not done anything wrong.

Just two months ago, Cabinet approved the appointment of a new NHT board. It includes the four persons who were appointed shortly after four of the then members resigned in the aftermath of the Outameni storm. Douglas's contract, which had expired, was not renewed.

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