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Baha Mar Chairman and CEO Sarkis Izmirlian, a Swiss-born businessman and full-time resident of the Bahamas, gave an emotional speech about the journey he and his team had been on since April 2005.
"What a long road it has been. A road of challenging twists and gratifying turns," he said. "While there were some naysayers along the way, we never doubted the viability of this unique prospect. Those who doubted must have been talking about other projects."
Hundreds of people attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the casino resort, including Bahamian Deputy Prime Minister T. Brent Symonette and Tourism & Aviation Minister Vincent Vanderpool.
Also attending were representatives from the two Chinese firms who helped resurrect the project when Harrah's (now Caesars) pulled out 2008.
China State Construction Engineering Corp., a state-run company that is the largest construction firm in China, will be Baha Mar's main contractor. The Export-Import Bank of China, also a state-run firm, will be the project's main financier.
"Baha Mar should be a milestone between mutually beneficial cooperation between China and the Bahamas," said Export-Import Bank of China President and Chairman Li Ruogu.
Baha Mar is expected to be completed in late 2014, and the numbers associated with the major resort development are staggering. It is being billed as the largest single-phase resort development in the history of the Caribbean. It will include:
• 3,800 hotel rooms spread across six hotels.
• 100,000 square-foot casino, which will be twice the size of the one at nearby Atlantis
• 200,000 square feet of meeting space
• 3,000 feet of continuous beachfront
• 50,000 square-foot retail village
"(Baha Mar) represents the birth of a new generation of destination resorts which will compete on the world scale and which today only exist in dreams," said Izmirlian. "The world has never seen what we are about to create right here in the Bahamas."
"We're creating something that most don't think is possible," he added. "We're marrying the excitement and true experience of Las Vegas with the soul, beauty and spirit of the Bahamas."
Almost three years ago, it looked like the resort would never be built. In March 2008, Harrah's Entertainment pulled out of a joint-venture agreement with Baha Mar. Later that same year, the world economy collapsed into the worst recession since the Great Depression.
China State Construction, which had been bidding on subcontracts related to the project, stepped up to the table to save the resort. The company is known globally for building the famous Water Cube in Beijing, one of the lasting images of the 2008 Olympics. And it helped facilitate the involvement of the Export-Import Bank of China.
The partnership between the Bahamas and China was evident at the ceremony. Many of the speakers and executives wore lapel pins featuring the Chinese and Bahamian flags. Both flags were behind the podium as well.
The groundbreaking featured two festive dances. The first was a Chinese lion dance, and the second featured Bahamian Junkanoo performers.
The speeches during the ceremony also had a political message, especially when speakers discussed China's role in the world economy.
"Since the outbreak of this global economic crisis three years ago, major Western economies suffered from the worst recession in the last eight decades," said Ruogu. "But other developing countries, including Caribbean countries, also have been hit hard. Thanks to China's positive and reactive measures, China has scored an early recovery from the crisis and sustained fast economic growth."
Hu Dingxian, Chinese ambassador to the Bahamas, said that the geographical distance between the two countries has not stopped the progress of building a closer relationship.
He also added that some of the public's perceptions of China's role in the current world economy are misguided.
"In such circumstances, no country in the world can develop in isolation," he said. "Nor does China. But in over 30 years of reform and opening to the outside world, China's relations to the world have gone through historic changes.
"(China's) future is closely related to the rest of the world's. China is committed to economic relationship and cooperation and mutual benefit. Its development should not come through other country's futures."
Izmirlian said in a press conference after the groundbreaking that he believes the Bahamas can sustain two major destination resorts. The Atlantis Resort and Casino, which was built in stages and completed in 2007, is less than 15 km away.
"I don't think the Bahamas can't handle two projects of this size," he said. "There are 150,000 hotel rooms in Orlando and 150,000 hotel rooms in Las Vegas. You can't tell me that we as a country can't do better than that."
The project, which represents about 45 percent of the Bahamas GDP, had to overcome a political backlash from Bahamians as well to get off the ground. A major bone of contention was outside contractors were being brought in on major construction aspects of the project. To help alleviate some of those concerns, $400 million was set aside for strictly Bahamian contractors.
Don Robinson, president of Baha Mar, told Casino City in an interview after the groundbreaking that a project of this magnitude simply couldn't be built by a strictly Bahamian workforce.
"Even if we wanted to have all Bahamian construction labor, there is no workforce that's qualified to deliver this project," he said.
Although outside contractors will be brought in for some of the construction, Baha Mar estimates that 8,000 permanent jobs will be established once the project is complete. The resort will also include a training facility for current and future employees.
"Now is the time for Bahamians to make the push to help themselves and their communities," said Izmirlian. "Baha Mar can complete its long journey successfully, but only if Bahamian workers on this journey commit to doing their very best and stick with it.
"Attend the training programs and improve your skills, provide the best guest service you can and work hard. Most importantly, let's treat our guests the way we would want to be treated, make them feel as welcome as I have been in this great country."
Izmirlian ended his speech by saying the Baha Mar vision begins now.
"Not often in our lifetime will we be able to create a project that will so profoundly benefit so many lives in our community and reset the bar for tourism in the Caribbean and in this hemisphere," said Izmirlian. "Today begins the rebirth of the Bahamian Riviera. Today begins the true journey of Baha Mar."