Miami Firm Interested In Norman's Cay Resort Project

A Miami-based private equity firm that specialises in luxury, beachfront resort purchases is in negotiations to acquire the development rights to the previously proposed multi-million dollar Aman resort project on Norman's Cay in the Exumas, Tribune Business can reveal.

The Brilla Group, which acquired the Raleigh Hotel on Miami's South Beach last year, is seeking to acquire the development rights to the several hundred-acre project that were held by the New York/Miami-based Setai Group and its partner, Aman Resorts.

George Smith, the former PLP MP for Exuma, confirmed to Tribune Business yesterday that he was aware of the Brilla Group's interest in Norman's Cay, adding that it might already have reached an agreement with a wealthy group of Bahamian investors who owned the surrounding land.

The Bahamians, whose real estate holdings were originally slated to form part of the Setai/Aman project, are financial executives Mark Holowesko and Gregory Cleare, plus attorneys Martin Solomon and R James Cole.

When asked by Tribune Business about the Brilla Group's involvement, Mr Smith said: "I've heard that group has reached a private arrangement with R James Cole, Mark Holowesko, Gregory Cleare and Martin Solomon to buy their parcel of land for $17 million or $22 million."

Those prices could not be confirmed, and Mr Cole did not return a call to Tribune Business seeking comment before press deadline. However, this newspaper received further confirmation that the Norman's Cay project, for which Exuma Resort Developers obtained a new Heads of Agreement from the Ingraham administration in 2007, was the one in the Brilla Group's sites - something that has never been revealed until now.

Adam Cohen, Brilla Group's founder and chief operating officer, did not return Tribune Business's calls either, despite messages being left for him on three separate occasions. However, on one call, when told that this newspaper was inquiring about Brilla's interest in the Norman's Cay resort project, an employee who answered the phone confirmed: "Yes, that's correct."

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, minister of tourism and aviation, confirmed to Tribune Business that while he was personally unaware of Brilla's interest in Norman's Cay, he knew of the company's great interest in Bahamas-based resort developments.

"Brilla has expressed interest in a number of properties in the Bahamas," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business. "That [Norman's Cay] may be one of them. I've met with them on several occasions, and would not be surprised if that's one. They seemed to have a very strong interest in a number of places in the Bahamas."

David Davis, permanent secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, told Tribune Business he was unaware of an application from the Brilla Group for government approvals in relation to Norman's Cay. Referring to the previous project plans involving Setai and Aman, and the four Bahamian investors, Mr Davis said: "What is lost with Norman's Cay is there is a Bahamian group that owns substantial acreage. In Norman's Cay, the Government is throwing in some acreage but substantially less.

"We're talking today about a much smaller percentage of government land, and we are ensuring that we get value for any land."

Mr Davis had previously told the Select Committee on Lands hearing that Exuma Resort Developers Ltd, meaning Setai/Aman, had "pulled back" on their plans as a result of the credit crunch and global recession.

His response had been prompted by questions from Mr Smith about the status of some 550 acres, the former properties owned by drug trafficker Carlos Lehder, which were now vested in the Treasury.The Committee's report said: "Mr Davis assured your committee that the land in Norman's Cay is still in the hands of the Government. He said that the developers had pulled back as a result of the economic situation.

"With regard to publicly-owned lands at Norman's Cay, your committee supports the view that this is very valuable land, that there ought to be full disclosure of all parties who are applying for the use of this land, and the Government ought to be slow to alienate such significant portions of publicly-held land on Norman's Cay having regard to the heritage that ought to be left to Bahamians. Any use of public lands at Norman's Cay must be used to empower Bahamians."

Mr Smith again expressed similar sentiments to Tribune Business yesterday, questioning why no Exumian or Bahamian investor could be brought into the Norman's Cay project.

He added that land was the "most significant" tool that could be used by a government interested in "empowering" its citizens, and giving them a means of creating wealth.

Source: The Tribune