Blue Lagoon to rise again - Lee-Chin's company defends slow pace of restoration of world-famous property after stakeholders cry foul
Gareth Davis Sr and Tyrone Thompson, Sunday Gleaner Writers
Michael Lee-CHIN'S Portland Holdings is dismissing claims that the Canadian billionaire has abandoned the world-renowned Blue Lagoon attraction in his home parish.
Once considered to be the gem of the Caribbean, the Blue Lagoon was purchased by Portland Holdings in 2009 with a promise from Lee-Chin that it would be restored to its former glory.
However, almost six years later, craft vendors, homeowners and other stakeholders around the once picturesque property, including president of the recently formed Craft Vendors' Alliance, Colin Beckford, have charged that those promises were empty, and the poor state of the property is now crippling their business.
"We have lost faith in Mr Lee-Chin. Approximately six years ago when Mr Lee-Chin visited the Blue Lagoon, he spoke about his intention to redevelop the facility, and that we the craft vendors would be an integral part going forward. I believed every word back then, as this man had restored hope in us. But it has not happened," declared an obviously disappointed Beckford.
He noted that the Blue Lagoon, which was once Portland's premier tourist attractions, has attracted many of the world's rich and famous over the years.
The facility once housed a restaurant - which is now partially submerged and rotting away - a mineral spa, a helicopter landing spot, and bathrooms - now covered by vegetation and closed to the public.
According to Beckford, as the years unfolded, the only work that has been done to the property is a major clean-up, which was undertaken in 2012.
"Sixteen of us operated as craft vendors back then, but today fewer than six of us are still in the business. I just cannot understand why is it that Mr Lee-Chin build up our hopes and then drop us like a breadfruit," said Beckford.
However, project manager for the development, Jonathan Baker, told The Sunday Gleaner that this is not the case.
"It couldn't be more the opposite. It might not have happened in the time they wished it would happen, but it is happening at a rapid rate, especially bearing in mind what had happened prior to Michael Lee-Chin being in Portland, which is nothing."
According to Baker, who also manages the GeeJam properties in the area, he was hired by Lee-Chin in 2011 to complete the restoration and manage the properties owned by Portland Holdings after the economic recession had caused the plans to be put on hold.
The Portland Holdings properties include the Trident Hotel and Castle, the part-done Blue Marlin Villa, along with the Blue Lagoon Restaurant.
Pointing to the Trident Hotel, which he said was renovated in just eight months, Baker said much had been accomplished since the end of the recession.
According to Baker, in order to preserve the ecological nature of the Blue Lagoon his team needed to approach the development with extreme caution.
"The Blue Lagoon is a place that people come from far and wide to visit so it has to have proper planning, so instead of rushing in and restoring what is there, we have done an inordinate amount of research with international marine divers and surveyors to determine the development's effect on the ecology of the lagoon, and this in turn has taken quite a bit of time."
Baker claimed the development had also been delayed for months because of the catastrophic findings of a marine survey.
"I met with the community in April and spoke to the parish council, and we had our designs and drawings done and ready to be submitted, and were just awaiting the result of the final marine survey, and what it found was catastrophic.
"It discovered that the integrity of the existing pylon supports, which we were relying upon in our designs, were not good, in that the silt that they sat on could have dramatically damaged the lagoon," explained Baker.
"So everything was put on hold and Vidal Dowding (chief architect) and his design team effectively had to shelve those plans and rethink the entire project."
Despite these delays, Baker is confident that with the timely approval of plans that will be submitted to the relevant agencies by February, the project should be completed by December 2015.
"Look at the Trident. We started construction in April and it was completed by Christmas in the same year. That's my goal for the Blue Lagoon. It will have to be opened by season coming and I want the community's support on that," said Baker.
"We will be putting in booths for vendors as well as an area for the public to see and swim, which will have lifeguards and changing rooms. These were never there before, but we want to do everything to support the community."
Baker went on to state that it was Lee-Chin's commitment to the community which had caused him to prioritise the Trident's renovation over that of his own private villa, the Blue Marlin, which is located closely to the Lagoon.
The unfinished property has upset neighbours and craft vendors, who say the unsightly building surrounded by zinc fences is driving away visitors from the attraction and causing a reduction in the value of their properties.
"Michael is as keen as anybody to get the Blue Marlin finished, but he'll always put the community first, and the community is the hotel that employs 240 persons, that's 240 families," stressed Baker.
"So he recognised that the Trident had to be first, then the Lagoon, and then the house, for the record plans have already been submitted (to the parish council) for the house and we are expecting them back momentarily."