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OBA says Premier was misleading public over airport profit claims

The Opposition has accused David Burt of misleading the public over claims that a sale of shares in the company operating LF Wade International Airport amounted to foreign companies profiteering off a Bermudian asset.

Cole Simons, the One Bermuda Alliance leader, issued a statement countering Mr Burt’s assertion on Wednesday that news of the impending sale was “disappointing” – and that the Government and taxpayers had to “sit idly by while foreign companies sell our airport for their own profit”.

Mr Simons said the deal for the redevelopment of the airport, which first became public in November 2014 under the OBA government, had been used “for too long” by the Progressive Labour Party as “a political wedge to divide Bermudians”.

Wayne Furbert, the transport minister, was unmoved by the criticism, calling it a “tone-deaf” effort to “rewrite history”.

The two parties have disagreed sharply since the inception of the public-private partnership between the Government and Canadian Commercial Corporation to build a new terminal for the airport.

Under the arrangement the Canadian contractor Aecon Concessions built the terminal and retained a management contract over the facility.

Aecon announced on Wednesday that it had agreed to sell a minority stake in the airport’s Bermudian-based operating company, Skyport, to Connor, Clark & Lunn Infrastructure, an investment asset management firm based in Toronto.

The sale, reportedly worth $128.5 million, was said to be going ahead in the second quarter of this year.

Mr Burt condemned the sale, which he highlighted had come after $50 million in payments from the Government went to Skyport, while the airport lost travel during the Covid-19 pandemic, to cover minimum revenue guarantees.

The Premier branded the redevelopment a “no-bid privatisation of Bermuda's airport” and said Aecon’s investment in the facility was now valued at “four times what it was worth just six years ago”.

However, Mr Simons said the airport had not been sold and “always will belong to the people of Bermuda”.

He said the Premier “continues to deceive” and “apparently can’t resist misleading” the public on the issue.

“If the Bermuda Government had financed this world-class airport and the airport closure during the pandemic, it would have resulted in the government having to increase the public debt by over $300 million,” Mr Simons said.

“In addition, the Government would have had to pay airport workers salaries and benefits while the airport was closed.

“Now, if we compare the current airport structure to that of a government-financed airport, the $50 million paid to Skyport Limited to date could be seen as a modest amount.”

Mr Simons said the payments to Skyport had “worked exactly as it was supposed to” during an unanticipated pandemic, by averting a default on the debt for the project.

“It was Skyport Limited, and not our Government, that paid those salaries when the airport was closed, and when it earned virtually no revenue.”

Mr Burt also said on Wednesday that the redevelopment deal had been “opposed by a majority of the voters in Bermuda”.

It culminated on December 2, 2016 with demonstrators barring the gates to the House of Assembly to prevent key legislation from going before MPs – leading to a clash between protesters and police armed with pepper spray.

Transport minister hits back at Opposition on airport deal

Wayne Furbert, the transport minister, said One Bermuda Alliance leader Cole Simons “clearly” supported “private profits over taxpayer sacrifice” in his defence of the Skyport shares sale announced this week by Aecon.

Mr Furbert said the criticism from Mr Simons “should be cause for concern” among residents.

“The Opposition Leader should be reminded that in addition to the $50 million paid to Skyport since the pandemic, the taxpayer is still paying Skyport’s energy bills and additional firefighters, while Skyport collected over $50 million per year in airport revenues, with not one dime of that revenue going to the taxpayer.”

Mr Furbert said Mr Simons suggesting the $50 million payments to Skyport were “modest” was “tone deaf” and “woefully out of touch while Bermuda deals with the impact of 40-year high global inflation”.

He added that Skyport would “send taxpayers another bill” in 14 days’ time “due to the contract that was approved by the Opposition Leader when he sat in Cabinet”.

“I am not surprised that the Opposition wants to rewrite history, but the fact remains that a majority of Bermudians opposed the no-bid privatisation of the airport, and Wednesday’s news is clear evidence of the reason why.”

He insisted the deal was set up for the island’s taxpayers to lose out to overseas interests.

Mr Furbert raised the government guarantee for the stalled Morgan’s Point development under the OBA, saying the Opposition had once more said “they would do it all over again”.

But Mr Simons said there was no proof of a majority opposition to the deal, calling it “misrepresentation” by Mr Burt.

“To be clear, the lawbreaking protesters, who included Premier Burt, illegally blockaded Parliament, and did not represent the majority of Bermudians who are law abiding citizens,” he said, calling the Premier “thrifty with the truth”.

The Opposition leader said Mr Burt “never” offered alternatives.

“The only thing he did was attack and try to block the transaction.”

Using private airport authorities to run airports has “better proven track records than governments”, Mr Simons insisted.

He called on the Premier to announce “a definitive and fully financed deal” to reopen the Fairmont Southampton Hotel as well as the Elbow Beach Hotel, which would boost passengers using Bermuda’s airport.

Aecon’s sale to CC & L of 49.9 per cent of its holding in Skyport was hailed by the Opposition as a vote of confidence in Bermuda.

Mr Simons said the majority of residents were aware that “investments in large infrastructure assets are what the country desperately needs”.

He called CC & L “very solid” as “one of Canada’s largest privately owned asset management firms” – and said the Government “should and must” celebrate its ability to bring “greater potential for future inward investment opportunities for Bermuda”.

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Published March 21, 2023 at 6:49 am (Updated March 21, 2023 at 6:49 am)

OBA says Premier was misleading public over airport profit claims

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