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NHT diversifies into attractions market

Published:Wednesday | October 29, 2014 | 12:00 AMTameka Gordon
File NHT Chairman, Easton Douglas.

In what appears to be a tweaking of its business model, Jamaica?s premier housing and mortgage agency has diversified into attraction ownership with the acquisition of Outameni Experience in Trelawny from Lennie Little-White.

But Easton Douglas, chairman of the National Housing Trust, whose asset base tops $194 billion, says the state-owned agency has invested outside of housing before, citing the Emancipation Park in New Kingston.

The park, however, is not a commercial venture, while Douglas has said Outameni is expected to generate returns for the trust. Such returns are expected to be relatively small compared to the annual $3 billion to $4 billion of surplus generated by the state-owned agency.

Outameni is an entertainment/tour business developed on the historic Orange Grove property, near to Falmouth. The 10-acre property also houses a great house, the name given to manors on what were once sugar plantations.

Douglas told Wednesday Business that the NHT acquired the site ?lock, stock and barrel?, but then qualified that the deal excluded some of the furnishings, which the agency did not need.

The sellers initially sought $311 million for Outameni, but NHT finally acquired it for $180 million, ?based upon the valuation that we had done,? the chairman said

The agency, which hopes to have the facility up and running within this financial year, will spend $111 million on upgrades over a three year period.

optimistic

?We project to spend $66.7 million in operating cost for the first year, with income projected at $50.1 million for the first year,? Douglas told Wednesday Business.

He also said the housing agency was optimistic that it could deliver a profitable and diversified attraction to the north coast.

The NHT intends to position the business ?so that we can have returns from it?, Douglas said.

NHT does not plan to outsource the management of the attraction, instead it will adopt the same model used to run the park, according to the chairman. NHT itself manages the park via a special team, but has said it eventually plans to transfer the maintenance and management to the Emancipation Park Trust.

Douglas says NHT will sell concessions to various business operators, but provided no details on the types of services that the new Outameni will offer, except to say a small component will be for housing development.

The old Outameni was originally staged as a pantomime with drama, indigenous dance, music, and motion pictures in seven villages. The villages were Taino. Spanish, African, British, Indian, Chinese and Rasta, and featured reggae music in modern Jamaica. There was also a sampling of Jamaican foods in each village.

Later a fun village was also added with waterslides, bounce about, games of skill and a Jamaican restaurant.

The property also offered a great house tour to cruise passengers after the Falmouth Cruise ship pier was opened

Douglas said a plan has been developed for the repositioning of the attraction and a manager appointed for the project.

The repositioning of the property would proceed in phases over three years, the NHT chairman said.

?It?s not going to be just one time because it has to be developed on the basis of what is practical and it cannot be done in one year,? he said

?There are going to be some additional inputs into the property to make it more attractive, not only in relation to what now exists in Trelawny. For instance the massive amounts of development taking place done there and near to Outameni.?

The Outameni attraction was conceptualised in 2007, about a decade after Little-White and partners reportedly acquired the Orange Grove property. The idea was to leverage the historic sugar mill and 18th-Century great house into a money-making venture.

NHT is now looking to add housing, Douglas said.

?Although it will not be a whole lot of housing, we are going to do some houses at Outameni ... but I?m not trying to suggest that it was predominantly purchased for housing,? he said.

He said the Trust views the project as ?something similar to what was done for Emancipation Park.?

Upkeep for the public park now costs the trust $85 million annually, which is minimally offset by fees charged to host special events there.

The idea to purchase Outameni was conceived during the agency?s 50th anniversary. Douglas said, ?When we said what can we establish that was something that could be done in the west similar to Kingston.?

The chairman also referred to the new purchase as a social investment to complement its other holdings in the vicinity.

?When we consider that we own 700 acres at Dry Valley, 300 acres at Windsor and 700 acres at Dundee, in addition to the developments taking place at Stone Hedge and Florence Hall, which are developments for which the NHT provided interim financing, we see this as very good investment,? he said.

?Although no decision has been taken yet, we have also put into our projection other matters that we expect to come on stream in Trelawny.?

The Outameni property was sold roughly a year ago, Little-Whyte told Wednesday Business, but otherwise declined to comment on the deal.

tameka.gordon@gleanerjm.com