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More than ‘just a building’

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Ben Smith’s childhood memories are of what is now the Fairmont Southampton playing a significant part in his upbringing (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

When my family moved to Southampton five decades ago, we had a clear view of the Southampton Princess Hotel being built. I was a baby, so of course I don’t remember first-hand, but what I do fondly recall is the hotel becoming an important part of my upbringing.

With my father, Hubert Smith Sr, being one of Bermuda’s most loved entertainers, and the Southampton Princess not only being in my backyard, but the place to go when you wanted to see the latest acts, I have a lifelong connection to this hotel.

And I know that I am not alone.

Many major events and milestones have been celebrated at the hotel. For me, it was where my father worked, where I started playing golf, attended proms and many prize-givings.

When I got married, my wife and I were gifted a suite by a former general manager of the iconic hotel. The memories are endless.

Why am I sharing this?

Because the hotel is more than “just a building” to me. It’s iconic not just in the Southampton community, but to the island as a whole.

I want to be clear that I want the Fairmont Southampton to be reopened and support the hotel project; however, I must point out what I have observed to date.

When Covid-19 ravaged the world, and many businesses closed or suffered in big ways, we had to accept the changes caused by challenging times. The major blow was the closure of the Fairmont Southampton and the loss of so many jobs in our community.

I couldn’t understand how our biggest hotel with the iconic brand could fall when so many others were figuring out how to survive.

Then Gencom could not pay its employees redundancy. This seemed strange considering it is a large, successful company. What happened after that, though, is what has given me concern:

• The Government pays the employees so that they are not suffering

• The union negotiates a new agreement

• Gencom comes up with the funds to repay the Government

The majority of Bermuda wants the hotel to be reopened because it creates jobs. Closing it contributed to an economic problem for which it is imperative we find a solution.

Most would agree that the construction project is important to help our stagnant economy. The issue with this is the developer has already said a high percentage of the construction work will be done by foreign workers. Some will benefit from this project, but not as many Bermudians as people have been led to believe.

Many hotels in Bermuda complete refurbishments while remaining open. The Fairmont Southampton was operating and making money before it closed, so why cut off its lifeblood?

The Fairmont Southampton is a conference and group-booking hotel that accommodated a large number of our air arrivals. Without these consistent air arrivals, the airlines have started to look elsewhere for their revenue, and now our airlift has been put into jeopardy. We have had reduced flights or lost routes because of these changes. The pandemic cannot take all the blame when our competitors are continuing to increase routes and airlift.

The Government and Gencom will tell Bermuda that they will have a high percentage of Bermudians working in the hotel and that there will be so many increases in opportunity. We cannot forget that those job losses were caused by the initial closure, so we can’t now give credit for solving that problem.

I have been speaking only about the hotel project because that is the portion that is important to the Bermuda community. We are all waiting for hotel renovations to begin because we have heard an early 2024 reopening is the plan after all the delays. It is difficult to believe that a $450 million upgrade can be completed in such a short amount of time — but I’m not a construction expert. I hope that this will not be just a new coat of paint and cosmetic changes for our iconic hotel.

Just because we’re eager for construction jobs, hotel jobs and potential increased airlift does not mean we should make decisions based on desperation. The development project in the special development order is not about tourism, so we cannot allow that to be the narrative.

We are desperate to have the hotel reopened, and approved concessions and incentives to make sure it happens. The Opposition has supported and continues to support the project for refurbishment and reopening of the hotel, but I don’t think our community should have to swallow even more because of the leverage that was created when we were at our lowest.

The original SDO was large-scale with 130 units. There is no need to make it bigger by adding a further 131 units — and it’s detrimental to Bermuda for it to be accepted under duress.

Let’s be clear: the majority of the condos are not about tourism and the units for tourism can opt out, so why are one of the largest contributors to the tourism economy being held hostage because of the condo scheme?

Ben Smith is the Opposition Senate Leader

• Ben Smith is the Opposition Senate Leader

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Published April 25, 2023 at 1:51 pm (Updated April 26, 2023 at 8:20 am)

More than ‘just a building’

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