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Features - Jan 2007



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The idyllic Exuma chain

The idyllic Exuma chain

Islands become the hot new place to invest and live

The Bahamas Investor Magazine
January 4, 2007
January 4, 2007
Jessica Robertson

Over the years, George Town, Exuma has been referred to as a “sleepy fishing village”—a place where yachtsmen stopped during peak season for provisions and a bit of company while making their way through the chain of 365 islands.

On the surface, not a lot has changed. But delve a little deeper and you soon realize that the Exuma capital and its surrounding settlements are undergoing a major economic transformation.

Unofficially, Exuma’s population has exploded from just 3,600 to about 5,700 in recent years. Every able man and woman who wants to work can and, in many cases, they have a number of jobs from which to choose. Along the length and breadth of Great Exuma, homes are being completed or added onto and new ones are being built. Taxi drivers have traded in their beat-up station wagons and are now taking visitors around in Escalades and stretch limousines.

Things are changing faster in Exuma than the surrounding ocean changes from one brilliant shade of blue to another. The island is attracting affluent visitors from all over the world, and most who are familiar with the island and the changes taking place point to the multi-million dollar Emerald Bay Resort development project as being the catalyst for the change.

Emerald Bay Resort
A 25-minute drive away from George Town, this 475-acre property overlooking magnificent crystal-clear waters has changed both the face and economic landscape of Great Exuma.

In addition to its natural beauty, Great Exuma’s location, just 130 miles southeast of the Bahamian capital of Nassau, made it an ideal choice, says CEO Kevin Clemente.

“The accessibility of the airport made it a very unique opportunity. Typically, a site like this has accessibility issues, so that if you’re going to make the kind of investment that we’ve made here, you’d be very concerned about whether you could actually get the people here who would support it,” he explains.

To date, the developers have pumped about $375 million into the project and, once completed, Clemente says they will likely have invested close to a billion dollars.

Emerald Bay Resort is perhaps best known for the ultra-luxurious, yet tastefully understated, five-star Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma, nestled among perfectly manicured lawns and overlooking the tranquil Emerald Bay. Its 183 guest rooms have attracted a new breed of visitor to the Exuma Cays—one who can appreciate the quaint look and feel of a Family Island, but still expects first-class service and amenities.

The Emerald Bay Marina has extended the cruising range for boaters with a Florida base by 500 miles. In fact, many of the completed slips have already been sold and mega-yachts up to 208 feet long have utilized the state-of-the-art amenities. Owners now call Exuma their home base.

The upscale community also boasts a European-style spa and a Greg Norman-designed golf course with views so spectacular they make it difficult to concentrate on the next shot. The addition in May 2006 of the island’s first casino added a new entertainment option for visitors and guests.

Home away from home
For those who feel a short visit to Exuma, no matter how glorious, simply isn’t enough, choosing Great Exuma as the location for a second, third or even fourth home is becoming increasingly popular.

For American residents in particular, proximity and accessibility are strong selling points. Both American Airlines and Continental offer regularly scheduled 90-minute flights out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, and in 40 minutes, passengers can arrive in George Town on one of the many daily flights departing from Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau. Many homeowners fly in on their personal jets and say having a customs facility in George Town makes the commute a breeze.

Emerald Bay Resort offers a variety of home ownership opportunities. Prospective buyers are unlikely, Clemente says, to find an investment for anything less than $1.5 million. Completed homes on the premium lots are expected to fetch up to $8 million. Already completed are the Four Seasons Resort Residences and a number of the one- to four-bedroom Caribbean townhomes at Grand Isle Villas, a sub-development on site. Emerald Bay Resort also offers property packages that allow owners more customization. Most of those lots were sold in the early stages of development, and lavish homes are now beginning to pop up.

Attracting a similarly high-end clientele is February Point, just a few minutes away by car from George Town in the opposite direction. The gated community is perched on a point overlooking Elizabeth Harbour. Like Emerald Bay, it offers villas or homes on lots ranging from one-third of an acre to a complete acre. February Point also offers fractional ownership and operates a property rental service for its owners.

According to February Point general manager Matthew Marco, property owners are seeing a solid return on their investments. One 2,600-sq-ft four-bedroom home still under construction, barely more than a foundation at the time, received an offer of $3.525 million. It’s not for sale, but the owners were pleased to see such potential appreciation on their initial investment of $2.8 million.

At February Point and elsewhere on the island, developers realized that the key to their success would be selling turnkey properties.

“People want to buy something new and they like the concept of a developed gated community, but they don’t want the hassle of having to come down here and figure out how to get their homes built. So we offer turnkey homes that are completed inside and out. All they have to do is get back to the island,” says Marco. In fact, February Point also offers packages that include golf carts and boats to get around to the neighbouring cays.

February Point residents typically spend between two and eight months per year on their property and some have made it their primary residence. In addition to the views that first attracted them to Great Exuma, they enjoy tennis courts, infinity swimming pools, a casual bar and restaurant, wireless Internet and GSM cellular service. And soon construction will begin on a fabulously trendy restaurant in partnership with New York-based restaurateur Rick Camac whose 5 Ninth in Manhattan’s Meat Packing District has been a hit since it first opened its doors to the New York social scene.

Investment thriving in Exuma
The folks at February Point like to tell prospective buyers that the investment they are contemplating is one that will grow in the sun. And that sunshine is helping to cultivate a healthy market.

In 2002, Londoner Norman Wells gave up the frenetic life of a technology consultant in the city and bought 17 acres of waterfront property on which he has permission to build 50 homes. Most of the owners of his turnkey single-storey colonial-style homes are British and buy pre-construction. Units range from $190,000 for a one-bed, one-bath duplex to $435,000 for a three-bed, three-bath home.

Wells only cuts down the trees he needs to build a home and has an on-site nursery where he grows his own native flora and fauna to landscape the property. At the sunset bar overlooking the private pool and beach and surrounding shallow bay, the only sounds are the occasional flutter of the wings of a passing hummingbird.

Exuma is such a hot market right now, property need not boast an ocean view or beachfront to be in demand. Smaller-scale developments like The Village at Hooper’s Bay, which includes two-bedroom villas starting at $400,000, are beginning to crop up all over the island.

Build it and they will come
Foreign investors are not the only ones contributing to the development of the island’s economy. Most of the major Nassau-based insurance companies and commercial banks have set up shop in George Town and recently, Mail Boxes Etc opened its doors in the Emerald Isle Shopping Centre. While those additions cater mainly to the growing and increasingly prosperous local community, other Bahamian businesses are moving into Exuma to cater to the more affluent.

Earco Elite is an Eleuthera-based company providing aviation fuelling and ground services to commercial carriers and private planes in Family Island airports throughout the country. According to partner and director of operations Granville Bethel, they intend to invest at least an additional $5 million for building, fixed-base operations, a hangar and related services just in George Town alone.

“In 2003, we handled only 17 aircraft in Exuma and this year we’ve already handled over 120. In March 2003 we pumped 4,795 gallons. In March 2006 we did over 85,000 gallons of fuel. We do try to take a conservative look at these numbers, but the proof is in the pudding. Exuma is definitely trending upwards,” he says.

Nassau-based Cacique International Group of Companies has been on the scene in Great Exuma since the Four Seasons first opened its doors, planning weddings, parties and events for the resort’s guests. Now president and CEO Shawn M Sawyer is positioning the company to take advantage of new opportunities on the island.

“Cacique is a company that caters in large part to the group business, so for now, the Four Seasons is where most of the opportunities are. But groups travel to houses and town houses and on yachts too, but that’s an opportunity that’s going to come in time for us and it’s something that we definitely believe in and plan to be there as it begins to happen,” says Sawyer.

Native Exumians are also benefiting. No trip to Great Exuma would be complete without an afternoon spent at Chat n Chill on Stocking Island. Judging from the hundreds of signed T-shirts and business cards hanging from the rafters and plastered on the walls of the rustic wooden bar, and the messages left in the guestbook, the spot has become immensely popular with visitors.

Chat n Chill is the creation of Exuma native Kenneth Bowe. The former Chicago-based economist saw an opportunity in his hometown and jumped on it. He purchased the beachfront property, built his bar and grill, developed the facility and then opened it up to everyone who could get there, whether by boat or seaplane. Use of the facilities is free, but food and drink on Volleyball Beach must be purchased.

On opening day in 1998, he sold 60 cases of beer, 24 lbs of hot dogs and 30 lbs of hamburger meat and says he’s never looked back.

“This is proof that Bahamians can invest in their own country and do well. I opened this with an initial investment of $80,000 and to date I’ve put in about $300,000,” he says. Asked if the investment is paying off, he replies that “if it weren’t, I wouldn’t be expanding.”

What does the future hold?
Ask anyone in Exuma, whether it’s a major investor, a local entrepreneur or a local worker, and they’ll tell you that as good as things are in Exuma right now, they are only going to get better.

That’s not to say there won’t be some challenges and growing pains along the way. Some developers are concerned that with all of the multi-million dollar projects either under way, on the drawing board or soon to begin in Exuma and other islands, the government bureaucracy will find it more and more difficult to keep pace.

Many also question whether the infrastructure and workforce required to support all of the major investments and spin-off businesses can keep pace with development.

Overall, government’s plan has been to attract at least one anchor development to each Out Island. It is hoped that as these islands prosper and their economies grow, residents from overcrowded New Providence will migrate in search of new opportunities.

Unfortunately, rent and real estate prices have skyrocketed in Great Exuma in recent years, so while there may be Bahamians interested in moving south, there is little affordable housing available to them.

In response, some local and foreign investors are beginning to develop middle-income communities to accommodate the inevitable population surge.

In the meantime, locals and foreign investors continue to work together to develop Great Exuma, acutely aware that a balance must be struck—the sleepy fishing village that attracted everyone in the first place cannot get lost in the rush to develop.

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