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Minister admits to uncertainty over island arbitration centre

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Ground breaking: Ground was broken on the proposed arbitration centre two years ago. (Photograph by Owain Johnston-Barnes)

Uncertainty remains over whether Bermuda will get its own arbitration centre, the Minister of Public Works admitted yesterday.

The centre in Hamilton, to be named after a former president of the Bermuda Industrial Union and a past Progressive Labour Party MP Ottiwell Simmons, would fill a longstanding void for international arbitrations on the island – a need highlighted by business leaders since the 1990s.

But Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch said of the empty site waiting construction at the foot of Parliament Street: “Clearly this spot cannot remain vacant for ever.

“There will be a solution and there will be a building on this site. I would like, and the Government would like, to see it be the Ottiwell Simmons Arbitration Centre.

“Whether that becomes a reality is still a question. But we are committed to exploring that question to its satisfactory conclusion.”

Colonel Burch was unfazed at competitor jurisdictions Cayman and the British Virgin Islands forging ahead with arbitration facilities of their own.

“They have been trying to beat us to international business,” he said. “How well did they make it there?”

The centre, on the site of the old Hamilton Police Station, was announced to applause in the 2018 Throne Speech – but the property has sat as a brownfield site since two buildings went before the wrecking ball in 2020.

Colonel Burch responded to criticism last month from a specialist lawyer that the island’s plentiful vacant office space would have been more appropriate for a centre, and that the stalled plans for a new building were “overambitious”.

Throne Speech initiatives: Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, Minister of Public Works (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

“I would be the first person to admit to disappointment the Arbitration Centre has not materialised,” Colonel Burch said.

“But the reality is, you face challenges with any project. We are still committed to it.”

Early plans called for a building up to five storeys to be built under a public-private partnership with Chicago-based Milhouse Engineering and Construction.

Colonel Burch has repeatedly cited the need for a financial model to get approved, and it was revealed last month that an analysis continued – with the minister stating that a redraft of plans was likely.

In remarks yesterday on his ministry’s Throne Speech plans, Colonel Burch said other government departments would “probably” be tenants of the building, which is to pay for itself through rental revenues.

He hit back at criticism, saying: “I am aware of the negativity of some lawyers and others in the community about the state of the place.”

He added: “I do not deal with that. We would be in a worse state if we didn’t want the embarrassment or have to answer these types of questions – if we just barrelled on ahead without having taken proper due diligence financially. We are still working on those numbers.”

Colonel Burch insisted the developer remained on board, and that regular talks continued with consultants.

“We will work through whatever challenges we have, and make a decision.”

But he said nothing would get his approval until every aspect of the project had been satisfied.

“I will not agree to proceed until we are at a point where we comfortably can build a building, occupy the building and pay for the building.

“We are not there yet. Until we get to that stage, we will take criticism that the building has not been built.”

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Published November 17, 2022 at 9:25 am (Updated November 17, 2022 at 9:56 am)

Minister admits to uncertainty over island arbitration centre

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