BIMINI, Bahamas -- The Bahamas government has issued a construction permit to Resorts World Bimini for a cruiseport capable of disembarking 1,500 ferry passengers daily at its gambling casino on the tiny island 50 miles east of Miami.
Resorts World —operated by Genting Group, the Malaysian gambling concern that purchased the Miami Herald’s downtown headquarters in 2011 — expects to bring as many as 570,000 tourists per year to this 8.8-square-mile island with a population of about 1,400.
While some islanders look forward to a boost in business, others see the $10 million project as an environmental Armageddon that will squash the last vestige of Bimini’s laid-back, Out Island-charm.
Construction is expected to begin shortly on a 1,000-foot-long pier on the western shore of North Bimini, and a connecting 4 1/2-acre island with berthing for the 660-foot-long ferry, plus three megayachts in the 200- to 300-foot range. Boat passengers would be able to clear customs on the manmade island, then board motorized trams for the short ride to the casino. Currently, the ferry stops just south of Bimini and sends passengers ashore on smaller tenders.
An environmental impact assessment prepared by Resorts World consultant Kirk Lofgren of Miami says workers will have to dredge 220,000 cubic yards of sea bottom to a depth of 31 feet; the dredged material will be used to construct the island. Construction is slated for completion sometime in December.
Lofgren says the site was chosen carefully to have the least environmental impact possible. The bottom is mostly sand but is dotted with hard and soft corals — “low relief habitat,” according to Lofgren, which would be damaged or destroyed during dredging. To mitigate the impact, an artificial reef would be built nearby using the transplanted corals and limestone boulders.
“If we’re going to build a pier, this is the best place to do it,” Lofgren said.
But Neal Watson, who runs a scuba center at Bimini Sands Resort with his son, fears popular coral reef dive sites just north of the pier, such as Three Sisters and Atlantis Reef, will be devastated.
“There’s no way to put a 1,000-foot pier and dredge a channel deep enough without causing an enormous amount of damage to the reefs and marine environment,” Watson said. “That boat is going to come in there day after day. Every time it comes in and departs, it’s going to be stirring silt in the channel they dredged.”
Lofgren responded that the company will monitor the water constantly for turbidity, and if it gets too murky, then work will stop.
Samuel “Doc” Gruber, a retired University of Miami professor who has operated a shark research lab on South Bimini since 1990, has clashed for years with the developers of the Bimini Bay Resort where the casino opened last summer. Gruber has long railed against destruction of mangroves and sea grass during construction of 400 housing units, several restaurants and docks that began in 1997. The scientist and others urged the Bahamian government to establish a North Bimini marine protected area, which happened in 2009. But the government never followed through with a management plan or regulations for the reserve.
Gruber is livid about the cruiseport, which he said was approved with no public oversight.
“It’s way out of scale for this little island,” he said. “Although they say they’re being ecologically competent, nobody has any access to their methods and without that, we can’t evaluate it.”
Rafael Reyes, president of RAV Bahamas Ltd. — developer of Bimini Bay and partner with Genting in the cruiseport — said critics’ concerns are unfounded.
“What brought us here is the environment,” Reyes said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we adversely affect any of the natural resources the Bahamas has to offer. These resources are what we are marketing to our clients. It doesn’t make sense to market something and then harm it.”
Reyes says his company has invested more than $150 million in Bimini, with plans to build a 350-room hotel and improve the small airport on South Bimini, along with local roads and other infrastructure. He said a golf course proposed years ago is now off the table. His aim is to make the small island — which now teems with tourists in the summer but is mostly deserted in winter — a year-round destination.
“People in the community want things to get better like we do,” Reyes said. “They want to sell more Bimini bread and more conch.”
Edith Romer, owner of Edith’s Pizza, believes she’ll sell more of her tasty lobster pies to visitors coming through the cruiseport.
“I think it will be better for business,” Romer said. “I’m sure I’ll get people from it. I don’t think it’s going to ruin the island. A lot of tourists that used to come here a long time ago don’t like it. It’s not the same Bimini they’re used to. But things change, you know. We just have to embrace it, you know.”