Tourism, hospitality and construction workers may have started the year with “the deal has been done” ringing in their ears as they looked towards the much anticipated revival of the Fairmont Southampton.
It took until this month, however, for Westend Properties to announce the commencement of renovations to its iconic property.
Headlines about the resort in 2023 were mostly about the company’s request for a special development order to pave the way for additional units at the site.
It was October 2022 when the Premier declared to Progressive Labour Party members: “The deal has been done. The deal has been signed.
“What we are doing is getting to the closing process, which takes 45 to 60 days.”
David Burt clarified later that a heads of terms was signed and that he had “complete confidence” the deal would close.
In February this year, Westend claimed renovations at the resort were “moving forward” and that construction was expected to start in the next quarter.
The company, an affiliate of Miami-based investment firm Gencom, highlighted that its first priority would be to carry out refurbishments at the 593-room hotel, which was shuttered in 2020.
Westend also confirmed it was in the process of submitting an application for an SDO that would go further than an order granted in 2009, which gave planning permission in principle for 71 fractional tourism units, 37 residential villas and 22 town homes.
Legislators on both sides of the House of Assembly in March approved a Bill that meant tax and customs duty concessions for the hotel redevelopment would be structured as a rebate rather than direct relief, in order to reduce exposure related to a government guarantee of up to $75 million.
Westend’s SDO request was submitted and made public in April.
It sought in-principle approval to build a maximum of 147 residential and 114 tourism units in buildings of up to six storeys over 15 to 20 years.
The company conceded that the full scope of the development would have a “major” visual effect on the property and surrounding environment, but insisted that would be offset by economic benefits.
It was claimed that, according to an economic impact study, the construction phase of the development could generate more than $300 million with another $846 million expected to be created in the long term as a result of visitors renting the units and their on-island spending.
Pushback came swiftly from environmental groups, which were said to have been “bombarded by a very outraged public”.
Concerns were around the scale of the proposed project, and the Bermuda Audubon Society described it as a “publicly subsidised real estate development”.
Meanwhile, Westend Properties assured residents that the “white blocks” that appeared in documents submitted as part of the planning process were not an accurate reflection of how the resort would look upon completion.
Sir John Swan, a property developer and former premier, believed the project could be an asset to the island and her people.
The Bermuda Industrial Union backed the plans and said: “There is a simple truth that resonates within those of us in the trenches fighting for workers’ rights — Bermuda’s economic recovery will be stalled should the naysayers succeed and the Fairmont Southampton remains closed.”
A public meeting was held, when Chris Maybury, a longtime resident of the island and affiliate of the resort’s ownership group, said the property would end up as “another derelict hotel on the landscape” if the SDO was not approved.
He later sought to “restate” the comment and added that there was never any intention to threaten anyone.
By the end of April, campaigners had presented a petition with more than 4,000 signatures to the Government, after a demonstration when they chanted and carried signs in opposition to the scale of the proposed SDO plan.
Placards bore messages such as “environment over profit” and “don’t give away our heritage”.
An initial deadline to make representations during public consultation on the SDO was extended from May 3 to May 29.
Construction workers were invited to a career fair at the start of June where they met companies involved in renovations at the hotel.
In July, a revised SDO request was submitted by Westend Properties that sought a maximum of 159 tourism and 91 residential units in buildings of up to four storeys.
Peter Adwick, of Adwick Planning, wrote in a letter supporting the application that feedback during consultation earlier raised concerns about a number of issues.
He added: “Broadly, the more deeply felt of these covered the extent of development across the site in non-development zones and the need for and mix of tourism and residential development proposed.
“Especially deep concern was expressed about the visual impact of higher-rise buildings in the centre of the golf course.”
The Bermuda National Trust said the scale-back appeared to be “tokenism”.
Bermudian architect Colin Campbell, a managing director at OBMI Bermuda, was asked by Westend Properties to produce sketches that would help people visualise how buildings proposed for the resort would fit among their surroundings.
The images were released just ahead of the deadline for representations and objections on the revised SDO proposal, which was August 18.
On September 21, the Premier claimed parties involved in the deal to financially support the Fairmont Southampton redevelopment were “getting very close to closing”.
By mid-October, it was confirmed that the Development Applications Board agreed unanimously that the Minister of Home Affairs should not proceed with making an SDO.
The DAB minutes said: “The board expressed the view that the proposal puts Bermuda’s tourism product secondary to being a development focused on real estate and is not in the national interest.”
On October 26, Walter Roban, the home affairs minister who at that time had responsibility for planning matters, announced his approval for the SDO.
“This is an anchor hotel,” he said then. “Everything rides on its success.”
Vance Campbell, the Minister of the Cabinet Office, who gained oversight of the Department of Planning after responsibilities were redrawn, said in November that when the SDO was finalised it will be published in the Official Gazette.
Westend Properties announced at the start of December: “The redevelopment is now under way, with constructions beginning in earnest in early 2024.”