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Action, please!


Peter W. Wickham

Action, please!

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In this business, it often happens that an article which speaks about an issue either becomes prophetic or, alternatively, does not imply the degree of urgency that the referenced issue requires.
In this regard, the People & Things column headlined Economic Democracy (March 18) is alluded to. In that article, I generally supported the proposal that was at the time on the table for staff of Almond Resorts to “buy out” Neal & Massy, with the assistance of Government, and thereby save Almond Beach Village from becoming a piece of real estate (like Paradise).
I felt then and continue to feel that this approach could have turned potential adversity into opportunity, and expressed the hope that the Freundel Stuart administration would respond to this impending crisis with an  uncharacteristic swiftness.
However, events have overtaken leisurely planning and what was a good idea two weeks ago is now an imperative.
Political context
There are two factors that should make action on the Almond initiative a priority. The most obvious is the reality of our political context with an election due later this year. This is therefore not a time for Government to be seen other than enthusiastic about doing some deal that will get the 500 employees of this company back to work with the greatest of urgency.  
In a country the size of Barbados, 500 people being thrown onto the proverbial breadline at any one time will have a profound impact even in the best of times (which these are not).
This impact is even further exacerbated by the fact that every single employee is likely to have dependents and, in some instances, both members of the household are employed there.
The other critical factor is economic, which speaks to the role that tourism plays in our economy and the contribution a functioning hotel like Almond can make to the economic well-being of our country.
Hotel contributes
In addition to paying salaries, which is the most obvious contribution, a hotel purchases large quantities of food and drinks for its guests and this benefits large and small providers such as farmers, fishermen and importers of food items.
In addition, there is the least noticeable contribution which is related to the fact that most people who stay at Almond Beach Village don’t stay there the entire day. This means that someone else in Barbados benefits from the tourist traffic Almond attracts and this can range from the car rental agency to the coconut vendor along the West Coast.
The logic of Government actively pursuing options to keep Almond open is therefore compelling and the consequences of inaction are presumably equally compelling since we have Paradise Hotel as a reference point.
The remaining question therefore is what option or options would Government have under these circumstances to help keep the hotel’s doors open, especially since the sun appears to have set on the initial proposal to facilitate an employee buyout.  
The property is for sale so, presumably, its owners would not frown upon an offer to buy it outright. However, it is unlikely that Government would be in a position to raise the necessary capital to purchase such a property at short notice in these times. Instead, it might be able to use its good offices to inspire another capable purchaser to move more quickly to take the property as a going concern.
In this regard, it is fortunate that the tourism sector is one in which fiscal and other incentives are normal and should not raise any eyebrows.
Ironically, the Gems of Barbados project presented a model for hotel ownership that was novel in its conceptualization but a disaster in its execution. Presumably, this type of model would not work for Almond Beach Village since it is not heavily indebted to any Government agency, as was the case with the hotels that were initially targeted for the Gems project.
Critical mass
Notwithstanding, the idea of seeking to remedy the deficiencies of one hotel by placing these within a group seems highly logical. In the case of Gems, the problem was size and the Gems group provided critical mass to the operation. However, the group encountered problems when it started purchasing properties outright.
There have been many opinions on the extent to which this venture was successful, but we can all agree that at least one of its properties was truly a “Gem” within the pool of hotels that are available in Barbados, and the larger project kept some hotels which would otherwise have closed open.
It is entirely possible that by the time this article is read, a solution might be in the public domain and this is justas well since time is limited. The moment that Almond Beach Village closes, it will automatically become more expensive to take over as a going concern and become more attractive as real estate.
Unlike some other commentators, I am hesitant to argue that Neal & Massy has a moral obligation to keep a hotel that appears to be losing money open; I can appreciate their “dollars and cents” approach to business.
I do, however, believe that it is Government’s role to create a regulatory environment that ensures that Neal & Massy’s “dollars and cents” does not interfere with our national bread and butter, and does not disrupt the lives of so many ordinary folk in this country.
• Peter W. Wickham ([email protected]) is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).

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