The removal of Kelvin Charles as Chief Secretary of the Tobago House of Assembly before his term in office was complete and his defeat to Tracy Davidson Celestine as the political leader of the PNM’s Tobago Council are being blamed for a failed attempt by investors to take over the Manta Lodge Hotel and turn it into a major dive resort on the island.
“I believe they were more concerned at the time with their political careers given it was during the time when Tracy Davidson came into the picture from Costa Rica to throw Kelvin Charles out of office due to lack of confidence,” explained Executive Vice President of Fabian Vincent NAMM Advisors Group.
NAMM Advisors Group was a group of investors who were seeking to get the hotel off the ground which was laying idle for years, gathering rust, after it was controversially purchased in 2015 by the Tobago House of Assembly when Davidson-Celestine was the then Tourism Secretary and Deputy Chief Secretary. To date the hotel is still not operational and millions of taxpayers dollars have been spent on its acquisition, security and recently works to bring it into operation.
Since the Tobago House of Assembly’s acquisition of the Manta Lodge Hotel in 2015, there have continued to be questions about the Dive Hotel’s future and the wisdom of the purchase by the THA.
Those questions remained largely went unanswered until earlier this year when Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis finally confirmed work had begun at the contentious facility after many years of stagnation.
However documents which have surfaced suggest there were plans to start work on the hotel dating as far back as 2019.The documents included a memorandums of understanding between the Tobago House of Assembly and NAMM Advisors Group,which was revised three times between March 2019 and September 2019.
Despite the numerous revisions, each of the MOU’s stated a clear goal, the redevelopment and expansion of Manta Lodge, situated at Speyside in the island of Tobago.
It read, “The client (The Tobago House of Assembly) is desirous for the redevelopment and expansion of the establishment, known as Manta Lodge, situated at Speyside in the island of Tobago. The client in conjunction with the developer wishes to facilitate through our public private partnership, the redevelopment and expansion of the Manta Lodge which includes but is not limited to the expansion of additional rooms and hospitality amenities, construction of a Marine Jetty with the option of a boat fuelling facility, state of the art water treatment facility and new beach facility for the Manta lodge guests together with the public at large.”
The last of the three MOUs confirmed that NAMM had successfully convinced the THA that it indeed possessed the “professional skill and experience, personnel and technical resources together with the expertise in dealing with complex financial transactions,” to take on the project.
NAMM also accepted the responsibility, according to the MOU that it would procure the financing “towards a project notwithstanding that only a preliminary proposal has been submitted to the Tobago House of Assembly”
That MOU however called on them “to provide a thorough and detailed project plan, which is to be submitted on or before November 30 2019.”
Further the MOU sought to confirm NAMM and THA would “establish a collaborative working relationship among the parties to achieve the common goal that is collating information towards the redevelopment and expansion of the property known as Manta Lodge.”
NAMM also agreed to “engage in a project consulting team comprising technocrats to be appointed from the THA together with expertise from the developers team to garner pre-development information, which could include but not limited to designs, assessment of the site and site planning, requisite permits and approvals. Provide a detailed briefed include appropriate methodologies, architectural designs and drawings together with the scope of works among other things, provide documents on this procurement techniques to ensure it is compatible with procurement procedures of Trinidad and Tobago, provide the name or names of the lending sources when they become available, but within a reasonably accepted time.”
Given that such an agreement was in place over two years ago, what happened between then and now?
This was a question raised by Deputy Political Leader of the Progressive Democratic Patriots Farley Augustine on nomination day for the upcoming Tobago House of Assembly Elections.
According to Farley, “I understand that the THA under Kelvin Charles had actually signed a MOU with a group of Tobago businessmen so that they would have done all the work and spend the money and invest it in the hotel. As soon as Tracy kick him out of office, plans changed and the THA is now spending the money on Manta Lodge.”
THA Chief Secretary Ancil Dennis confirmed to the Business Guardian that the current work being at the Manta Lodge was being undertaken by the Urban Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago, with work on the site approximately 35 per cent complete with an estimated completion date of February 2022.
He stated that almost three million dollars had been expended on the project to date.
In his correspondence, there was no mention of NAMM Advisors.
When asked about the MOUs which were signed by the THA in 2019, Dennis asked for a copy of the documents to be sent to him to verify its validity. However up to the time of publication, he had not sent a response concerning the document or explained what became of the purported agreement.
Former Chief Secretary Kelvin Charles however did confirm to the Business Guardian, that there had been an agreement reached with the THA concerning the redevelopment and refurbishment of the Speyside Dive Hotel.
However he too could not say what became of the agreement, as he stressed that whatever decision concerning current work on the Manta Lodge Hotel came after he resigned as Chief Secretary in April 2020. Confirmation that work was finally on the way at the hotel came one year later.
Vincent, who is based in Las Vegas told the Business Guardian, “The MOU expired due to lack of response from the THA, they never responded to us after we made our full presentation to Kelvin Charles and Kwesi DeVignes, they just dropped the ball with no further communications, after we spend so much time and money to ensure that we had everything in place to move forward.”
Vincent, who was born in Bloody Bay, Tobago and has carved out a career in the financial space for over 40 years, explained that NAMM submitted numerous presentations and proposals.
“ It was a lot including presentation materials, 3D videos, design elements including both exterior and interior etc Architectural, travel from the US etc,” he said
However he stated that all progress came to a halt once Charles left office. Vincent believed the MOU was an opportunity for the People’s National Movement to make good on its promise to encourage foreign investment within the THA.
The Speyside hotel, along with the Sanctuary Villas in Blackrock were acquired by the THA for $32 million dollars. The purchases were heavily criticised, particularly as it came to light that these properties were bought by the THA without any proper feasibility study being done.
To compound matters, the THA continued to incur expenses for Manta Lodge and Sanctuary Villas for occasional maintenance and security of the facilities, all while neither of these pieces of real estate earned any revenue for the THA as they have both not hosted a guest since being acquired.