Plans by American movie star Robert De Niro and Australian billionaire James Packer to build a 391-acre mega-resort in Barbuda are stirring controversy in Antigua and Barbuda, where opponents accuse the Gaston Browne-led government of trampling citizens’ rights in a rush to push the project through, according to reports.
The passage last week of the so-called “Paradise Found” bill during a lively session of the Antigua and Barbuda parliament cleared a major hurdle to the US$250 million development on the site of the run-down and abandoned K Club, which closed in 2004, said the British Guardian on Friday.
It said the new law gives the celebrity business partners incentives, including a 25-year tax holiday, in return for building the exclusive beachfront resort, which features an eco-lodge and yacht marina and a new airport on Barbuda.
But critics say the law – named for the De Niro-Packer partnership’s resort brand and passed within hours of its first reading – will “wipe out” sections of existing legislation, according to the Guardian.
It said among the provisions stripped by the new law are the right of the elected Barbuda Council to “consider and approve” large-scale property deals on the island and the population’s shared ownership of its land.
Plans for the resort, which include more than 40 upmarket cottages each with a private pool, call for the grant of a government lease for 140 acres in addition to the 251-acre footprint of the old K Club site, the paper said.
“What the government is doing, and the way they are proceeding, is wrong,” Opposition leader Harold Lovell, whose fellow senators from the United Progressive Party withdrew from the vote, told the Guardian.
“A very bad precedent has been set,” he added. “Every other investor could legitimately claim the wish to have some parliamentary force to give them whatever they desire.
“We are being asked to trample on an act that enshrines the rights of the people of Barbuda to hold land in common and have a say in terms of any major developments,” Lovell continued.
A year ago, the Antigua and Barbuda prime minister Gaston Browne hailed De Niro as “a visionary” for his work in hotel development, including a Macau casino project with fellow Hollywood big-hitters Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, according to the Guardian.
It said Browned named the actor a “special economic envoy in the hope of attracting more celebrity investment to the country.”
But the paper said progress has been slow since, and a referendum on the island in March that approved the project by a narrow majority is facing a legal challenge by the Barbuda People’s Movement (BPM), which claims the result was illegitimate because non-Barbudans were allowed to vote.
“Browne, fearful that De Niro and Packer might walk away from the investment in frustration at what he called stymieing by the opposition, said the government was merely acting decisively to get the project back on track,” the Guardian said.
“We did what we had to do,” the paper quoted Browne as saying. “We went the extra mile to get the project out of political deadlock and get it moving.
“If they’re going to protest with the hope that we lose the investment, they’ll have to account to the people of Antigua and Barbuda,” he added.
Trevor Walker, the leader of the BPM – and opposition leader on the Barbuda Council – said his group’s main objection was not to the project itself but the “grave disrespect” shown by the government to the residents of the island.
“We are opposed to the bill,” he said. “The process of having a project in Barbuda should be done by negotiation with the laws on the books. The project is a different thing. We’re open to getting the K Club going, we want it going.”
Another opposition lawmaker, Senator Jacqui Quinn, accused members of the governing Antigua Labor Party of “an unpatriotic, callous abuse of power” during debate on the bill at a raucous parliamentary session, which attracted about 400 protesters.
Browne said the project would bring a huge financial windfall for the country and generate hundreds of jobs to an island that has struggled economically, according to the Guardian.
It said an advance payment of US$1.85m from the De Niro partnership after the vote in March helped to clear a 20-week wage backlog for 600 Barbuda Council workers.
“We respect their right to protest, and similarly they ought to respect our right to attract good, sound, tangible investments that grow the economy and put people back to work,” Browne said.
“We have a population of 100,000 people. Four-hundred people cannot dictate our policy,” he added. “We’re not going to allow them to stymie the growth and development of this country.