A Barbadian heirloom has been sold, unadvertised and reportedly for less than its value but a week into the surprise announcement citizens of this island are yet to hear from government reasons for secrecy and why the giveaway price.
Though it carries an international brand, the Hilton Barbados is — or was — a majority state-owned company that had been in the hands of taxpayers since independence in 1966, and for this reason Barbadians over 50 years regarded it as symbolic of nationhood.
Government had announced an intention to sell the property as part of a means of rebuilding its foreign exchange reserves, but it was the private Nation Newspapers which last week broke the news that this prime property had been sold for Bds$160 million (Bds1 = 50 cents US) to London and Regional Properties, an English property management firm.
Government has since neither denied nor confirmed the sale with Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler brushing off queries on the matter, only offering a vague promise to speak on related issues sometime soon.
Announcing in May the plan to sell the 350-room hotel during the 2017-2018 budget presentation, Sinckler had said that recent valuations had put the property at $200 million, and “if a successful bid is accepted, government is expecting to receive no less than Bds$100 million as the net proceeds from the sale, taking into account the liquidation of existing debt liabilities attached to the property”.
But the newspaper’s revelations not only indicated that the hotel was sold without Barbadians being aware of any advertisement, but the $200 million estimated value of the property is said to be way off from the true worth.
The hotel owes some Bds$27 million in shares and investment to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), the public fund for workers’ unemployment, sick benefits, and pension.
Administrators of the NIS had reportedly carried out an independent study of the proposed Hilton sale and concluded that the hotel in fact has a book value of BDS$253 million. This valuation figure was estimated before $11 million in refurbishment work was done earlier this year. That renovation is believed to increase the property’s book value.
Additionally, the finance minister’s calculations on the net proceeds after meeting liabilities to be at Bds$100 million are said to be inaccurate.
When NIS shares and loan are added to other loans to this hotel, which was rebuilt for a 2005 re-opening, the total liability amounts to $127 that has to be subtracted from the reported $160 million sale figure.
This means government is in fact left with only some $33 million.
Such paltry takings from this property that once stood among independence jewels of Barbadians prompted Opposition parliamentarian, Ronald Toppin to call on Sinckler to “come clean and tell the public what are the circumstances that have led his government to give away this flagship property.”