By George Alleyne
Government’s planned move to authorize the sale of a Barbados crown jewel, the Hilton Hotel, amid the election season is now off the table and is set back to an indefinite time for consideration, if at all.
The plan, set for execution on May 21, came to a screeching halt last week after the Opposition Barbados Labour Party heard of the notice for a meeting of shareholders to discuss the sale resolution, and threatened mass protests.
For months media houses had reported that government had secretly agreed to sell the Barbados Hilton, a state asset with sentimental values for Barbadians because it was acquired at the same time of independence. But the administration was mum on the issue, neither admitting nor denying the sale, with Finance Minister Chris Sinckler saying only that details will come in time.
Opposition Leader Mia Mottley, however, revealed information, during an elections campaign meeting, that the three shareholders in the hotel were scheduled to meet to ratify the sale just three days before general elections on May 24.
She threatened mass protests by thousands of her supporters if the planned transaction was not delayed and put up for discussion at some date after elections and installation of the new government, if the new administration was inclined to peddle the asset.
“This government is determined to sell the Hilton Hotel … We must stop this meeting next Monday at all costs,” Mottley said to the large crowd attending the political rally. “The sale of the Barbados Hilton … in the name of Bajans must not happen on Monday on the eve of an election.”
“Let us between now and then stay tuned because … I hope that if I call upon you that you will come in your thousands to say enough is enough,” she added.
The very next day one of the company’s minority shareholders, National Insurance Scheme, received a notice of cancellation of the planned meeting at which it along with the other minority shareholder, Caribbean Development Bank, was expected to join with government, the majority owner, and agree to the sale.
That annulment of the meeting means that the shareholders cannot gather to approve the sale until sometime after the May 24 elections as 21 days’ notice is required for such shareholder gatherings.
Members of the Opposition BLP had been objecting to the sale since word of it surfaced last year as they contended that there was no need to sell this valuable and symbolic property because as a freehold asset it could have been leveraged for loans, while retaining ownership, whenever government is cash-strapped.
Further, they had contended that the sale agreement with British real estate investor, London and Regional Properties, would have seen the hotel and its surrounding assets sold at $160 million (Bds$1 = 50 cents US), which is $40 million below the value Finance Minister Sinckler had announced during last year’s budget presentation as the target price.
Additionally, the opposition had argued that if the property was sold at that price the net takings for government would be only $32.9 million after deductions were made for payment to the shareholders and outstanding debt.
More than that, Mottley pointed out that some two years ago the hotel had been valued at $252.8 million, and following that valuation $11 million in major renovations were carried out.
By the opposition’s calculation, the $160 million sale price that was to be ratified Monday would have represented a giveaway of almost $93 million.
Noting that the cancelled meeting was set for national holiday in observance of Whit Monday, a day of feast on the Christian calendar, Mottley asked her enthusiastic crowd of supporters if the intended multi-million-dollar giveaway on that day was “the ceremonial last feast of the Democratic Labour Party?”