The meeting where the Morgan's Point dream died

This is a second extract from the new book and appears on pages 259-364, USS Bermuda Chapter 11

The biggest item on the BLDC agenda after the election was getting Morgan's Point off the ground. It had been nearly two years since the false start with Rob Davies's MHIL. In the months after that enterprise was sidelined, when the project's viability seemed doubtful and Bermuda's shortcomings as a place to invest loomed large, the West Group arrived on the scene like the Seventh Cavalry. It had money, background, credibility, expertise and tailor-made enthusiasm.

Now, in the weeks following the PLP's historic election victory, the BLDC was anxious to get things moving again. The West Group, for its part, had been waiting patiently since the late summer for Bermuda's political scene to settle down with a new government. It had continued its due diligence in the months before the election and met with key members of the UBP government and the PLP Opposition. They heard nothing to discourage their interest.

  • <b>Former Environment Minister:</b> Arthur Hodgson

    Former Environment Minister: Arthur Hodgson

  • <b>Morgan's Point: </b>A $300m plan to transform the former US military base came unstuck at a meeting between the government and the West Group, according to an account by author Don Grearson in his newly-published book.

    Morgan's Point: A $300m plan to transform the former US military base came unstuck at a meeting between the government and the West Group, according to an account by author Don Grearson in his newly-published book.


This is a second extract from the new book and appears on pages 259-364, USS Bermuda Chapter 11

The biggest item on the BLDC agenda after the election was getting Morgan's Point off the ground. It had been nearly two years since the false start with Rob Davies's MHIL. In the months after that enterprise was sidelined, when the project's viability seemed doubtful and Bermuda's shortcomings as a place to invest loomed large, the West Group arrived on the scene like the Seventh Cavalry. It had money, background, credibility, expertise and tailor-made enthusiasm.

Now, in the weeks following the PLP's historic election victory, the BLDC was anxious to get things moving again. The West Group, for its part, had been waiting patiently since the late summer for Bermuda's political scene to settle down with a new government. It had continued its due diligence in the months before the election and met with key members of the UBP government and the PLP Opposition. They heard nothing to discourage their interest.

By December, the West Group was ready to pull the trigger on the project. It was prepared to commit $31 million of its own money, plus $55 million in debt-financing towards the first phase of the project. That would build the golf course, install all infrastructures, clean the environment, demolish obsolete buildings, re-create the Brothers Islands and lay down the first phases of the town centre and marina. But before any of this could happen, the West Group needed government support for concessions and legislative approvals considered essential to the project's viability. These included easing restrictions on sales of houses to foreigners, convenient ferry service between Morgan's Point and Hamilton, and the capping of the West Group's liability for environmental costs beyond the $10- to $12 million it was prepared to spend on cleaning the site. The BLDC apprised the government of the developer's list and its own eagerness to get things going.

By mid-January, the stage was set. West Group executives flew to the island to meet with the government for its response to the concessions request. They entered the meeting at the Cabinet Office having just received the "full support" of the BLDC board of directors. Jerry Halpin took his seat at the back with one of his investors, a young businessman from Silicon Valley. Pat Shooltz, the West Group's senior vice-president for business development, was the company's front man. His counterpart across the table, Terry Lister, was flanked by Eugene Cox, his daughter, Home Affairs Minister Paula Cox; Transport Minister Dr. Ewart Brown and Tourism Minister David Allen.

Shooltz reviewed the project's various components and its development timeline, which called for the completion of Phase One by the spring of 2001. He spoke of the West Group's patient investment philosophy being well suited to Morgan's Point, given its huge upfront costs would not pay out for approximately eight years. But all depended on the Bermuda government granting project concessions and providing support for various regulatory approvals.

During Shooltz's remarks, Environment Minister Arthur Hodgson entered the room dressed in jeans and an untucked denim shirt and took his seat. (Prior to the meeting, Halpin had been warned that Hodgson had been saying some odd things to developers around the island and that he should take what he said with a grain of salt.) Shooltz said he would like to ask each minister for comment on concessions for which they would be responsible. Paula Cox was first, but she apologised, saying she had not had time to study the West Group's proposals and to consult with her colleagues. She nevertheless thought there was a need to balance the West Group's "wish list" with the government's mandate.

Lister directed Shooltz to Hodgson whose environment ministry would be pivotal in capping the developer's liability for environmental problems beyond its $10-12-million cleanup. Hodgson, smiling, sat forward and stunned the West Group. The government, he said, was not interested in development for development's sake. Bermuda had 28,000 people "at the bottom end of things and one third of the people at the top…how do we re-structure this?" With that rhetorical question in the air, Hodgson spoke about the US and how its economy had been built on the backs of blacks and coolies, yet was owned by whites. In Bermuda's Tucker's Town in the 1920s, he said, blacks had been kicked off the land to build a golf course and hotel. Now, the only blacks there were caddies. Hodgson said he would prefer to have the people still living on the land growing potatoes. Exceptions to the rules had been made to build tourism, but after 50 years, the dispossessed and Bermudians at large "still don't have a share" of the value they helped create. Hodgson wanted Bermudians to start benefitting from the use of their land.

If the West Group was going to invest $90 million at Morgan's Point, Hodgson said, he wanted to know when Bermuda was going to have that $90 million. "When will we repatriate that investment?" He said he was thinking of an arrangement akin to a household mortgage that left Bermudians owning the house. In the West Group's case, he proposed establishing a fund over 15 years, wherein the company's money would be invested until it matched its initial outlay. The West Group would get its original investment back and the earned money from the fund's investments would be distributed to Bermudians, perhaps for continuing education and job-training that would help them get "to the top of the pack." If that wasn't enough, Hodgson added that the project should include low-cost housing for Bermudians. The government, he said, was not interested in seeing the construction of another Tucker's Town.

Hodgson sat back in his chair. The room was silent. Shooltz and his colleagues seemed at a loss for words. Lister cleared his throat. Morgan's Point, he said, represented a real investment and business opportunity in which Bermudians could become owners and operators. The government wanted that.

Lister quickly moved to the next concession item: relaxation of residential restrictions for non-Bermudians, which he understood might be difficult for the West Group in terms of selling Morgan's Point houses. The important thing for the government, he said, was to ensure Bermudians got "a fair crack at all housing." The restrictions Lister referred to were long-standing measures to protect the housing market for Bermudians, who otherwise could be outbid by foreigners with more money. Anything below a certain house value was simply not available to non-Bermudians. It was policy to keep Bermuda for Bermudians. Lister said removing the policy was probably not going to happen.

Shooltz said past discussions had established that mechanisms could be put in place to ensure Bermudians had "first crack" at Morgan's Point housing before the international market. Now, it seemed, the government was saying if the houses didn't sell locally, they could not be sold to foreigners. "This project won't go ahead if that policy is in place," he said. The project needed to sell its 300 homes if it was going to work. Its total cost-housing and all else-was expected to be in the neighborhood of $300 million. Cash flow was crucial with that kind of investment. "If we limit our range of customers by (these restrictions), this project is not going to be viable. We can't sit with fallow inventory." Paula Cox responded to the concern. She said she didn't know what kind of commercial timeframe would work for house sales, but the government's real interest was making sure Bermudians got first crack at the housing. "That's what we're talking about. Our view is that we're prepared to look at a relaxation." Cox had created an opening for the West Group on a vital concession, but it seemed to matter little. The air had gone out of the room with Hodgson's remarks. The atmosphere seemed impaired.

Tourism Minister David Allen was the minister at the table who arguably had most to gain from a "go" at Morgan's Point. He had dramatically promised to turn around Bermuda's faltering tourism industry in the first 100 days of the new government. Morgan's Point could symbolise that turnaround. But perhaps sensing his colleagues' mixed thinking, he passed on the opportunity to speak forcefully for the West Group plan. Allen said he was interested in having a new hotel built, and probably sooner than later, but Morgan's Point represented the last opportunity for Bermudians, "so we have to be careful how we approach it." Shooltz, with a hint of agitation, called for a time-out. Morgan's Point, he said, had been brought to the West Group as an opportunity and "we'd like to know that it's all our vision." His company intended to bring capital and development expertise to Bermuda. Morgan's Point promised much: a $300-million investment over eight years, of which 60 percent would remain in the island, "trickling down" scores of jobs in the short and long terms, new housing to meet growing demand, opportunities for Bermudians to become business owners, and project contractors with training programmes to "raise people to the next level of jobs." The West Group, he said, wanted to know if the Bermuda government wanted that.

"I think the vision is shared," Lister said. Nothing said that morning had "caused us to shift. If we're not saying what we or you want to hear, that's okay." He said he was trying to get behind the thinking; discussion was part of the process.

Shooltz continued to work his way down the concession list, which he used to clarify the West Group's thinking. The hotel needed government support, period. The economics would not work without it. The West Group needed an absolute cap on its liability for any environmental problems beyond its $10-12-million cleanup. Banks would not support the project without one. As Shooltz worked his way through the list, ministers said they could not give final answers, but pledged to continue working towards them.

Carl Musson said there was some urgency to the process. The BLDC was aiming to have government support in place for final financing by June, and construction to start by November. Jerry Halpin, who had remained silent throughout the meeting, said ministers should know there was a window of opportunity in the financial world. "It's there now. A year from now, I don't know." The meeting ended with the West Group and the BLDC leaving the room in a daze. The project that was viewed as a reality 60 minutes earlier seemed shockingly in tatters. Musson approached a colleague and said: "As a Bermudian, I have always been proud that we are a sophisticated, smart island. Today I'm embarrassed." One MHIL representative reported that just outside the meeting room, Halpin said: "These people are communists. Get me off this island now." When that comment was put to him, Halpin said: "I don't think I quite said that. I think I said something to the effect that this is the basis on which communists proceed." Halpin was also reported to have told the representatives from MHIL: "This was to be my last project. I wanted it to be fun, to do a good thing and even have a place of my own here, but not now. We'll stick with you for another few months, but as of now, we're out of this." In 2004, Halpin remembered the meeting vividly: "We had lined up sufficient financing to get the project done and we thought it had to be started in a short time because we thought the world economy was going to change, which it did in late 1999 and 2001. We thought if it were not pursued in rapid fashion, it would coincide with the downturn.

"But (Hodgson) started to lecture and lecture, and I made some notes. He was critical of the US for not letting in enough immigrants and when we did, they ended up picking fruit or cotton, and I was thinking, 'Forgive me, but my grandfather was an Irish potato picker. Everyone in the US is an immigrant, or came from immigrants, so what is he talking about?' And to say we hold people down, well, we're doing well – not everyone, but you know what I mean – and we're all free to do what we want.

"I think the first $10-12 million we were to put in there was (for environmental restoration) and here's this environmental chap giving us a hard time up front. He really disturbed me, frankly. I heard the chairman (Lister) passed him a note to say 'Shut up.' One of the Bermudians took the note out of the wastebasket." Halpin said he was also disturbed by Hodgson's statement that "we should put up affordable housing next to a five-star hotel. I was thinking the plan (for Morgan's Point) had been approved by the government. That wasn't going to work. It was a series of things like that that spooked us." Despite the warning about Hodgson before the meeting, Halpin was deeply shocked. This was partly due to the fact the PLP had been very encouraging prior to the election. Halpin recalled Opposition Leader Jennifer Smith could not have been more receptive and friendly, "but then we ran into this chap and that ended it. He would have had jurisdiction over the first money into the project." The reaction of one minister at the meeting was not much different than Halpin's: "Hodgson's comments were outrageous. The whole deal died right there that day." Hodgson, interviewed in 2005, spoke of the meeting before being asked about it specifically. "I was in town dressed in blue jeans," he said, "when someone said: 'You've got to be at this meeting.' The next day, I remember somebody coming up to me saying 'What are you trying to do? Make them think you're a communist?" Hodgson said he wanted to ensure developers understood their projects were to be used to create a profit not just for themselves, but for the people whose land and resources they were trading. Simply promising jobs was not enough. "That doesn't mean much here" (in over-employed Bermuda). Wages in return for land which generates millions of dollars in revenues is not enough." Was Hodgson voicing government policy when he spoke to the West Group?

"I hadn't really laid out a programme," he said, "but I was trying to sell the concept which is: All of us should have some control over some form of capital. I think the employee/employer relationship helps create part of the alienation (in Bermuda). Just to work for wages is debilitating. Individuals should have some kind of ownership."

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