Cabot Saint Lucia (Part I)

Ben Cowan-Dewar and Mike Keiser, owners of Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, are building a luxury golf resort and real estate development on the island nation of Saint Lucia and the site they’ve chosen, in addition to abutting some of St. Lucia’s best beaches, sits atop an ancient Indigenous burial ground.

You may have heard about this already: SaltWire carried a Chris Lambie story about the controversy surrounding the burial ground in October 2020, and CTV did some impressively in-depth reporting on the issue that same month.

The reason it’s back on my radar is that The Breach, a new Canadian online publication, picked the story up this week, updating it with the information that the leader of Saint Lucia’s Labour Party, Philip J. Pierre, who has publicly denounced the sale of 360 acres of oceanside property to Cabot, became Saint Lucia’s prime minister in July.

Obviously, the construction of a golf course on a burial ground is the key wrong here, but as a Nova Scotian, I can’t help but register that Cabot Links has the wherewithal to build what is essentially another Cabot Links in the Caribbean, and yet needed our help to weather COVID here in Cape Breton.

The company, which operates two courses in Cape Breton, Cabot Links and Cabot Cliffs, was one of three beneficiaries — the others being Ambassatours Gray Line/Murphy’s on the Water and Coach Atlantic — of the province’s carefully tailored Tourism Sector Financing Assistance Program for:

…resorts, tour operators and scenic and sightseeing transportation services with at least 100 full-time and/or seasonal employees, annual revenue of at least $10 million and who experienced revenue decline of at least 50 per cent for the period April 1 to July 30, 2020 compared to the same period last year.

Under the program, the province guarantees up to 95% of loans taken by these operators at interest rates not to exceed prime lending rate plus 1.5%. The maximum amounts each can borrow were set at $11 million for Ambassatours, $9.5 million for Coach Atlantic and $14.25 million for Cabot Links.

Curious to know how much we’re actually guaranteeing for each of these operators, I wrote the Department of Economic Development, but spokesperson Gary Andrea told me these were:

…private, confidential agreements between the operator and their lending institution.

In other words, Nova Scotians could be on the hook for up to $33 million (95% of the $34.75 million allotted the three operators) but we’re not allowed to know the exact amount.

If it’s any comfort, Dennis Campbell of Ambassatours is willing to bet his “career and reputation” that the program “will not cost taxpayers one dollar.”

And Cabot Links general manager Andrew Alkenbrack declared:

We’re thrilled that we have met program criteria and have been able to secure financing at more favorable terms. This means that Cabot will be able to maintain hundreds of local jobs and continue to attract more visitors to Cape Breton as the sector recovers.”

For the record, I don’t think Cabot Links needed our help to borrow $14.25 million, but as a wise man once said, “In the Maritimes, there is generally a government ready to pay you to do something you were going to do anyway.”

 

A month after Nova Scotia announced its loan guarantee program — perhaps while it was awaiting word on its application — Cabot announced plans for a third golf resort, Cabot Pacific, in Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Like Cabot Cape Breton and Cabot Saint Lucia, Cabot Pacific is a partnership between Torontonian Cowan-Dewar and American golf resort developer Keiser. This fawning 2019 Golf Digest profile of Keiser, then 74, said he owned 10, 18-hole golf courses (all of which made “lots” of money) with “three or four or six more on the way.” But what is “most impressive” about Keiser, per the author, Ron Whitten, is that:

…he first started developing his set of world-class golf courses in his early 40s, only after making an international impact in a whole different arena. Before he got the golf bug, he was the creative end of the fourth-largest greeting-card company in America, Recycled Paper Greetings, a business that Keiser, his wife, Lindy, and his college roommate, Phil Friedmann, started in Chicago on Earth Day 1971 and sold for mega-millions to a private-equity fund in 2005.

(Is it really that impressive that a 40-year-old with “mega-millions” at his disposal turned himself into a golf resort developer, given people in their late ’50s with mega-millions at their disposal can turn themselves into astronauts? Let’s keep things in perspective here, people.)

Golf Digest profiles, I’ve discovered, are an exercise in saying the quiet parts out loud. How else to explain this passage, explaining how, in the late ’80s, Keiser went about securing permits to develop his first 18-hole course in Oregon:

Word spread throughout southern Oregon that some crazy Chicagoan was buying huge parcels for cash. A realtor from Gold Beach tracked Keiser down and told him of 1,200 acres just north of Bandon-by-the-Sea, once proposed as a golf resort but, because the owners couldn’t get the necessary state approvals, then available for $5 million…

He bought the property, offering $2.4 million cash, which the sellers gobbled up. McKee then negotiated the state approvals for a golf resort on the land, a perfect role for him because he had helped write that state’s Land Use laws in the 1970s and had included an obscure reference to “destination resorts” as a legitimate use of such land.

Wasn’t he clever?

Whitten credits Keiser with targeting “retail golfers” and says he was inspired by the tour buses full of Americans he saw at the Royal Dornoch course in Scotland. That’s why most of his courses are public. But it’s a stretch, I think, to pretend that “public” means accessible, as Whitten tries to do, noting that a second round at Bandon Dunes, Whitten’s five-golf course resort in Oregon, is half the price of the first and the third round (if it can be squeezed in), is free. Which means that between July and September, you can play three rounds of golf as a day guest for a mere US$520 (CAD$640).

And anyway, judging by what I’ve read about Cabot Saint Lucia, it is not being designed to attract tour buses full of golfers.

 

Cabot’s timeline says the St. Lucia project began in 2007, when Raffles Hotels & Resorts received permission from the island’s Development Control Authority (DCA) to develop “an 18-hole golf course and luxury villas, condos and estate lots spread over 360 acres” on Point Hardy, a 375-acre peninsula on the northern tip of island. The property, Cabot noted, had been “privately owned since the 1970s.”

Cabot says that due to the 2008 financial crisis, the Raffles project “experienced challenges” and by 2012, the bank — a Canadian bank, as it happens, the Bank of Nova Scotia — had appointed a receiver and begun “searching for a sale for the project.”

Cabot Saint Lucia site

Cabot Saint Lucia site.

As luck would have it, according to this February 2020 New York Times article, Cowan-Dewar, looking to “solve the winter golf problem” at Cabot Links (the problem being you can’t play golf in winter at Cabot Links), was at that time:

…seeking projects that had been scuttled after the recession and that had easy access by air and a shared sense of British history when he “stumbled across this site in St. Lucia, for which Jack Nicklaus had done a routing plan and started construction.”

I will get back to the golf in a moment, but does Cowan-Dewar know anything about “British history” in St. Lucia? Like, the part about the slavery? Under both the French and the English who traded “ownership” of the island back and forth for 150 years? Because if he plans to discuss his shared “British history” with native St. Lucians, he should probably do his homework.

And when he does, he’ll learn that slavery, originally introduced by the French, was finally abolished by the British in 1834, at which point slaveowners were compensated for their loss of free labor and slaves were required to serve a four-year “apprenticeship — working for their former masters for at least three-quarters of the week for nothing — before they were finally made free. And even then, laws forbidding them from owning land left them “at the mercy of their former owners,” according to the St. Lucian writer Pat Brown. Deprived of slave labor, between 1859 and 1893, the British brought 4,500 indentured laborers from East India to St. Lucia to work the sugar cane fields. Today, 85% of Saint Lucia’s population is Black and 2.2% Indian.

And that, I guarantee you, is more about slavery in St. Lucia than you will read in any golf magazine article about Cabot Saint Lucia.

 

Cowan-Dewar’s first visit to St. Lucia seems to have been in 2016 — the year the United Workers’ Party (UWP) won St. Lucia’s parliamentary elections and Allen Chastanet became prime minister.

Chastanet has connections to Canada — has, in fact, described himself (in this September 2020 interview with BNN Bloomberg) as “a product of Canada”:

 

According to his official bio on the UWP website, Chastanet had a “peripatetic upbringing” during which he:

…attended primary and secondary schools in St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, Miami and Canada as a result of his father Michael’s shipping business, he attended Bishop’s University in Quebec where he earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Economics with a minor in Political Science. He also attended American University in Washington D.C. earning a Master of Science Degree in Development Banking.

His wife, Raquel DuBoulay Chastanet, a descendant of one of St. Lucia’s “oldest French families,” graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a BA in Spanish and Philosophy (she later got her law degree in the UK) and, as Chastanet told BNN, both his children attend university in Canada. In fact, Chastanet, who won his seat in the July elections although his party was routed by the SLP, claimed he was owed 250 days of vacation following his defeat and was accused by the SLP in September of “relaxing in Canada.”

 

In June 2019, however, Chastanet was at Point Hardy with Cowan-Dewar for a sod-turning ceremony.

Cowan-Dewar and Keiser had bought the 360 acres on Point Hardy for EC$37.5 million (CAD$17 million) and were planning an 18-hole golf course — to be called “Cabot Point” — with a 50-room hotel, various “amenities” and a real estate development encompassing “300 estate homes.” In addition to Cowan-Dewar and Chastanet, the ceremony was attended by representatives of the National Insurance Corporation (NIC), Saint Lucia’s pension fund.

What wasn’t known at the time of the ceremony, but was later leaked to the media, was that the NIC had lent Cabot EC$27.5 million (CAD$12.5 million) for the purchase.  According to Philip J Pierre, the time of the sod-turning, Cabot didn’t fully own the land, nor had planning approval been granted for the development.

Cabot St. Lucia sod-turning ceremony

Ben Cowan-Dewar and St. Lucian PM Allen Chastanet at sod-turning ceremony for Cabot Saint Lucia, June 2020.

Once word of the loan — which Cabot claimed represented just 11% of the “initial cost of development” of the St. Lucia project — leaked in July 2020, it became a scandal that seems to have contributed to the SLP’s landslide election victory a year later.

NIC board chair Isaac Anthony was forced to hold a press conference during which he defended the loan, saying it was 100% secured by “a first mortgage debenture on Cabot’s fixed assets including over 360 acres of land that was independently valued at approximately EC$91 million [CAD$42 million] in August 2018.”

But the SLP — which claims Chastanet was the force behind the loan — asked why the NIC hadn’t simply bought the land itself, instead of selling it to Cabot for “about 40% of its actual value?” And the NIC’s answer — that the receiver was committed to selling to Cabot — didn’t impress Pierre or his party, as it was the SLP’s understanding that “the commitment period was close to coming to an end.”

The NIC simply had to wait a short while, and then make an offer once that commitment had expired. But it did not. It was clearly convinced by the Prime Minister into giving Cabot, a loan instead.

Cabot had 12 years to repay the NIC but chose to pay back the loan — plus EC$2.4 million (CAD$1 million) in interest — on 17 March 2021. Cowan-Dewar stated:

Two years ago we made a commitment to the NIC and the people of Saint Lucia to offer an attractive and secure investment in what would be a world-class golf resort in the Caribbean, which would be managed prudently and would provide a healthy return on investment. We heard and understood the apprehension of many Saint Lucians when the news of the arrangement was made public. Today we have repaid the loan in full, including accrued interest. It has been an absolute pleasure working with the NIC. We are thrilled to have delivered on our promise to the people of Saint Lucia and will continue to serve this great island economy by creating a significant number of permanent jobs and contributing to its tourism product.

Pierre and the SLP remained unimpressed, repeating that the NIC “could have increased the assets of the pensioners of Saint Lucia” by far more than CAD$1 million “if they had simply just purchased the land.”

What, if anything, the new government will do about Cabot’s project is an open question. While Pierre came to power promising to “right Cabot’s wrongs,” The Breach report notes that he has, as yet, done nothing on the file.

Which doesn’t mean the critics have backed off. Next week, in Part II, I’ll focus on their concerns about the development.

 

Featured image: Top — Cabot protesters in St. Lucia, August 2020.