Rethinking the Ascot Project: A Journey of Lessons Learned / JAN 2023
Have you ever wondered what happened to the Ascot Project in Grand Bahama? It's a question that I've been asked countless times, and each time, I can feel a twinge of disappointment. As a person who values performance and success, seeing the Ascot project remain unfinished is a tough pill to swallow. But, what if I told you that the journey of the Ascot Project was not just about failure, but also a valuable experience that taught me some crucial lessons? In this story, I will take you through the ups and downs
I like to think that I have a unique background, shaped by my experiences and the guidance of great mentors. Throughout my career, I have tackled projects on various scales and locations, from offices in Australia, Singapore, London, and the USA.
I have always sought out the most challenging projects, eager to learn and achieve something that others have not. This approach has kept me engaged and driven to constantly improve.
I was ahead of my time in incorporating technology into my design work. I was one of the first to embrace computer-aided design and 3D modeling, and I was a pioneer in using technology for real-time project exploration and modification during client meetings. All of this was done long before mobile phones became ubiquitous.
In property development, I use my skills to sell projects before construction begins, making me a new type of "rainmaker" in the industry. By leveraging funding against pre-construction sales, I removed risk from the development process and provided an exit strategy in case the market did not respond favorably.
The Beginning of an Idea
My initial research into the site revealed more than I could have ever imagined. The 18 acres of land held endless potential, with its unique qualities that had gone unnoticed by many. It stretches from the pristine beaches to the tranquil canal, offering breathtaking views of the turquoise waters. The natural beauty of the site is undeniable, and I realized that I could use my skills to bring this place to life and transform it into a haven for visitors.
My mind raced with ideas, and I knew that I had to act fast before I get an email telling me to fly to another project. I put in place a comprehensive business plan, which would ensure that the project was not only successful, but also sustainable. My background in both design and construction, combined with my innovative approach, would give Ascot an edge over any other development on the island.
The potential of the site was so great that I knew I had to go beyond the traditional real estate development. I wanted to create a new model for developing property, one that would be based on a pre-construction sales strategy, leveraging funding against sales before construction even began. This new approach would not only minimize risk for everyone involved, but it would also provide an exit strategy in the event that the market did not take to the project.
I was driven by the desire to make a difference in Grand Bahama, to revive its economy and bring new life to the island. The residents, government, and visitors had grown tired of the same old excuses and were ready for a change. I was ready to be that change. The Ascot project had the potential to be the catalyst for a brighter future, and I was determined to see it through to completion.
The Hidden Potential
I discovered a gap in the regional marketplace for affordable vacation homes that could be rented out when not in use. I approached it with the condo/hotel model, which offered freehold ownership of a residence with the potential to earn income while not there. My vision was to keep it simple and elegant, using timeless British Colonial architecture that would appeal to the 40+ age group. I aimed for beach or canal frontages, charm, and affordability, with the option to participate in a managed pool of properties.
After conducting my first projections, I couldn't believe the results. I thought I had made a mistake, so I spent days reworking every budget and projection, but the numbers still added up too well. I even tried to break the formula with extreme contingencies, but it still stood. The downside was a lesser but still acceptable profit for participants and investors.
I aimed to tap into the Snowbird market, who annually fly over to other destinations that are twice the price and lack charm and quality beach and boat facilities. Capturing just a small portion of this market over five years would make the project a success. I have the expertise and qualifications to make it happen, so I felt an obligation to do so.
The landowner agreed to a deal, and I invested more time and money. I assembled a team of experts with extensive experience in island development. Full disclosure with the team showed that from a construction, sales, and investment perspective, they could not break the formula and that the "maths truly did math".
I have the qualifications and expertise to drive the project forward, and my financial investment effectively replaced the income I would have made from other projects I turned down. I had to work hard to secure a construction loan, but I was prepared to break even if it meant giving the economy a boost. There were more sites to develop in the future, and that's where the real money would be.
I had a team of experts with proven track records, not motivated by greed, and driven by success. I shared my ideas with colleagues from Florida and around the world, who saw great potential.
And the Rollercoaster Ride Began…
I had finally arrived at a point where I was ready to present my project to the marketplace and get some feedback. I had been working on it for a while, and I was eager to get some opinions from others in the industry. I had created some plans, renderings, and ideas that I felt confident about, and I was ready to take the next step.
I took my project to the planning and building department at the Grand Bahama Port Authority for advice. After some discussion, we agreed that it was ready to be submitted for “approval in principle.” This meant that the design, density, and location of the project had the blessing of the Port Authority, but there was still a long process of approvals to follow.
However, I was not yet ready to commit to a solid direction that would be worthy of full approval. I knew that I may change my plans in the future, so I was not in a rush to get full approval right away. Many people on the island suggested that I do so immediately, but I always questioned the benefit of doing so.
One afternoon, while cruising back from Green Turtle Cay, I received a message from a newspaper reporter in Nassau who was keen to get an interview. He had seen my ideas floating around and wanted to hear more about the project. I responded and set a time to chat the next day when I was back at my home.
I have always had a good relationship with the media, and I was happy to oblige. During the interview, I explained that the project was still in its early stages and that approvals would come in time as we progressed. However, when the newspaper article was published, it stated that I had all approvals without any qualifications, which bordered on being a lie.
This caused a firestorm of controversy across the Bahamas. I received a flood of communication, questions, and accusations from the government, the Port Authority, and people on the street. The Port Authority was embarrassed, and the government invited me to a meeting to discuss the matter.
I was fortunate enough to meet some great people during that meeting, including Sir Baltron Bethel, the advisor to the Prime Minister at the time. He was the first person of authority who actually understood the project and appreciated the effort that was going into it. Sir Baltron was all about making something for the betterment of the community and offered to provide advice and support if I ever encountered any obstacles.
Looking back, I often wonder whether that reporter did me harm or actually helped. He certainly destroyed my credibility with some, but at the same time, he also allowed me to meet some quality people who were supportive of the project. Regardless, I took the lesson to heart and pushed forward, no longer allowing interviews to go out to the media and taking control of my own narrative.
Securing the Funding
As a property developer, securing construction funding is one of the biggest challenges I faced when I started working on my project in the Bahamas. I believe that the best way to develop a property is to aim for a sales rate of 75% per stage of the development, secure funding against the contracts and down payments, and to fund everything else myself, which is a common practice in the industry.
Many people in the Bahamas think that property development is all about having a lot of money, but the reality is much different. A developer is only responsible for the amount that they can afford to walk away from, especially in an island where the risks are higher. That's why it's important to calculate the risks, rewards, and cash flow before using investor, bank, or institutional money to fund the hard construction costs. This way, we can leverage our own cash and create a more profitable project.
As an Australian, I didn't have many contacts in the investment and banking fields when I started this project. I didn't want to ask my colleagues for help, as nobody wants to share their valuable contacts with just anyone. So, I decided to do some research on my own before seeking help.
Securing funding was quite an experience for me as a newcomer to this side of the world. I was approached by all kinds of people with obscure and amazing offers, most of which were easy to identify as scams. However, there were some amusing moments, such as when I shared conversations with friends and we would make suggestions on where to send these conmen next.
I had an agreement drafted with a local bank at one point, and I was excited about the prospect of supporting the local community. Unfortunately, just before signing the agreement, the bank was instructed not to provide any funding of any kind on Grand Bahama, which was a huge disappointment. This decision also removed an important mortgage option for our buyers, and I was considering halting the project at that point.
Despite these setbacks, I eventually found a great contact and adopted him as my investment banker. We have built a strong relationship over time, and I trust him to provide me with good advice and guidance. He calls me up occasionally to act as a gatekeeper, and I only send him deals that make sense. Our relationship has helped us bring several deals to fruition, and I often seek his advice on various matters.
Securing funding for my project was a journey full of twists and turns, but I never lost faith, and I eventually found a great investment banker who I believe would have been successful should we have kept going. The experience has taught me that good things can come from turmoil, and that persistence and patience are key to success.
It was a day just like any other, I was out on the ocean enjoying the calm, when my phone rang. It was a local realtor with someone he wanted me to meet. The next day I was introduced to an unusual Israeli man, full of confidence and eager to discuss the Ascot project. At first, I took it with a grain of salt. I had heard it all before, someone coming in talking a big game but with nothing to back it up. Nevertheless, I shared all the details of the project with him, in case he turned out to be a valuable partner.
I already had some of the best investment bankers in the game on board, and I was in no rush to make any hasty decisions. But, a few days later this man presented me with two offers, both accompanied with corporate documents and what appeared to be legitimate bank statements as proof of funding. The first offer was a buyout for $250,000 where I would withdraw to a 40% interest and maintain the project, and the second being a 50/50 split with him maintaining controlling interest. Both were fair offers, and I was more about making something happen on Grand Bahama than maintaining equity.
However, I did have some skepticism about this guy. He seemed to lack the basic understanding of property development or budgeting. But, on paper, the money was there and he was bringing in some sales. Everyone else was keen to move forward with him, so I decided to give him “enough rope” and went with the second offer. But, I kept a backstop, retaining all intellectual property, which he didn’t realize at the time was the most valuable part and what saved a lot of innocent people.
Welcome to Purgatory
With construction funding apparently in place and the whole team excited, I began to pour a lot of time and money into the project, while completely ignoring my regular business and not taking on other projects. I’ve always believed that you are either committed to something or you are not, with no half way, so I was 100% committed, despite me being somewhat uneasy about this investor.
There were days when I was ready to deck this guy, and others when I was impressed. He certainly had a way about him and was enthusiastic. But there were moments where a veil of secrecy hung over many matters, most of them being things that one would not need to hide from a partner. At one point the land owner decided to play games to get more money on the deal, thinking she now had leverage. This guy bluffed his way through saying he had a massive legal team poised to sue her for breach, which is not my style but he pulled it off. I then took advantage of the situation and renegotiated with her shareholding down – poetic justice and it was somewhat satisfying at the time.
There were also USA immigration matters in that he was unable to travel there, which was unusual. I’ve heard of people needing to get their visas sorted out, but this guy was really hitting brick walls. I have never had the issue, so it was hard to comprehend, and when I referred my best immigration lawyer, and friend, I was shocked that he refused to pay a meager $2000 fee to get things sorted. One has to ask how does a man of apparent means have difficulty flying into the USA, and why would he not see the value in a skilled immigration lawyer taking care of the situation?
Meantime he put together a deal with some prominent Israeli businessmen for the bulk purchase of some condos, which seemed terrific. That deal seemed to wash away the doubts, and pushed me to invest more into the project to get it wrapped up. It appeared that we now had a real start on the project so it was time to get the Bahamas government sorted out and this USA immigration issue so as he may easily move back and forth as the project develops – important considering the USA is the Bahamas largest trading partner.
He asked me to come with him to the USA Embassy in Nassau as his English wasn’t that great and he wanted me to help interpret. That irked me a little but I thought “no big deal”, and we had to meet with Sir Baltron anyway, so we could hit two birds with one stone. I went into the embassy with him and when we made it to an agents window I saw the officer open the file and watched as his face changed. He looked at the guy, then looked at me and asked “who are you”. I explained I am just there to help him with communication and was politely asked to move two windows down, where another officer had me escorted from the building. That was one of the most embarrassing things in my life, and was the beginning of the end of the relationship. I don’t know what went down after I left, but he was denied a visa, and I am guessing rightfully so.
We went to the Prime Minister’s office to see Sir Baltron, who after a few minutes changed in attitude. He was his normal polite self but I could see that he had disengaged from the process. I believe that in his experience he saw what I did not, and that was this guy was way too fishy. I was already uptight from my ejection from the Embassy and was blind sided when this guy asked Sir Baltron for assistance in getting a USA visa, which was inappropriate and formed another nail in the coffin of the deal.
Then his checks started bouncing and further exploration showed none of his checks were good. It appeared that if he didn’t pay someone with a credit card then they weren’t going to get paid at all. Things were making less sense every day, but more and more people were getting involved. Many couldn’t understand why the hell I was holding off with them at the time, some considering that I must have squeezed them out – something I regret but I had to consider that if I kept letting people dive in they may get burnt.
I needed more time, so started playing a delaying game to see what panned out. When confronted by this investor, telling me how he was the main investor and should get his way, I reminded him that the only investor right now was me, and unless he put money into the lawyer’s trust account immediately then I no longer consider him part of the project, despite any previous agreement.
This guy went dark on me as he approached everyone else on the project. He was telling them that I am out and that my shareholding could be broken up between them all if they just stuck with him. All but a few fell for it, however some people I considered close to me were included, which hurt me personally. In hindsight I guess they got what was coming for making a bad choice, and I learnt just how quickly the island can turn on you when motivated by greed. It wasn’t the last time I saw greed come into play, and it left deep scars.
Upon more digging I had a conversation with a gentleman in Israel who unwittingly blew the lid off everything as I led him into making some small disclosures that completed what the real story was. To shorten a long story, everything was mostly fake, and done in a clever yet devious way. In my game I come across a lot of dreamers and crooks, but this guy had a unique approach that got past me and the lawyers as he was able to back up many things to keep us all distracted from the reality. He had partially assumed the identity of a person in Israel, and the documents and statements were all taken from that person’s house. He was able to use the credit card because it was that person’s card, not the corporate card that we all believed. He had enough of reality mixed into a façade to get past most of us at the beginning, but as things progressed his chickens started coming home to roost.
There was only one thing to do; at 8AM on a Saturday morning I issued a notice of discontinuance to every party involved and anyone who had communication on the project. I didn’t explain in detail why in the email, just that he was not part of the project and neither I or others involved take responsibility for his actions. I never signed away the ownership of the idea or Ascot, and so was able to completely remove it from the project and shut it down before this guy could wreak greater havoc. All he had left was a partnership agreement to develop that was soon expiring, but no project to actually develop, and my email set off explosions as the depth of the scam revealed itself.
I got emails and direct messages from previously unknown people in Israeli that had committed to the project, one having even quit her job to work on it full time. One guy had risked his own home and feared losing everything. And then the big one hit – I got a call from two businessmen in Israel that were set to wire millions into a USA based bank account that neither I or anyone else on the project, aside from the conman investor, knew about. After discussion they thanked me as they would have been personally on the hook for the money that would inevitably be stolen. They were grateful that instead of playing the game and being part of a scam, which could have made me millions, that I sacrificed my own investment for the sake of their and others protection. Friendships were made, maybe one day I will have something that they can invest in, and they know that when I do it is legitimate.
The chairman of the Grand Bahama Port Authority asked me afterwards what happened, and I explained that if I allowed it to keep going we would have had a lot of people turning up to see their condo that didn’t exist, and the island would have been embroiled in a massive scandal. I think it was the first time that he truly understood where I was coming from, and that I am not the pirate variety of property developer that frequents the Bahamas.
There were a lot of threats made afterwards by the crook, all hollow, and I don’t think he would dare go back to the Bahamas. Nobody hears of him anymore, some suggesting he may have been bumped off due to his many attempts to swindle people.
After the first setback, I took a step back to reflect and recuperate. I needed time to heal both emotionally and financially. The people involved in the project were supportive and understanding, and I came to realize the true value of good relationships.
A few months later, the core team got back together to figure out our next steps. We revisited the spreadsheets and brainstormed new ideas to avoid the unique challenges in Grand Bahama. Despite still feeling burnt, we were determined to find a solution. To our surprise, we found a way to restructure the project on a smaller scale and fund it ourselves, without relying on any banks or investors. If we did get investment, that would be great, but we were ready to go it alone. It wouldn't be easy, but it was achievable and the landowner agreed to the revised terms.
I pushed forward, revamped everything, and got the project ready for approval. However, the landowner then tried to pull the same stunt she did with the first iteration, demanding millions upfront to move forward. This time, with the full support of the team, I walked away. I don't think she expected that, especially after I had already invested so much. The site is now on the market for a fifth of the minimum price we had agreed upon, proving her bluff was a complete failure.
Many landowners in Grand Bahama inherited their property through generations or marriage, and may not have the skills or drive to make it on their own. Poor decisions are common, and some owners make no decisions at all, causing the island to stagnate from what I consider sheer ignorance. They don't need to sell their property and believe it's worth much more than what anyone is willing to pay, so beautiful locations go to waste instead of being put to good use. I believe that the value of anything is determined by what someone is willing to pay for it on a given day, which is why so many properties have been on the market for decades with no sale.
The Ascot project became a tumultuous journey filled with obstacles and challenges. The island is not as straightforward as I initially thought, and I've come to realize that there are several factors that contribute to the difficulties faced by the residents here.
One of the biggest hurdles I've encountered is the lack of support for new ventures and ideas. Although there are some people who are encouraging and supportive of new things, there are many more who are quick to dismiss or criticize anything that they're not a part of. Greed and avarice are unfortunately all too common on this small island, and I believe that it stems from a deep-seated frustration among its residents. If someone is not willing to put in the effort to make something good happen, then they see it as important that nobody else does, so that their own relative standing in the world is maintained.
Despite the challenges, I don't regret my experience on the island. I've learned a great deal about the world and its workings, and I've been tempered to a level that far exceeds where I used to be. In fact, projects in non-third world countries now seem like a walk in the park compared to what I went through on Grand Bahama.
The most valuable lesson I learned is the importance of a reliable network. I have formed connections with individuals of high integrity whom I trust and value their counsel, often following it without hesitation. These trusted individuals view me as a member of the same circle, earned through upholding my values even in tough situations. I could have chosen the easy path of participating in a scam and retired comfortably, but my integrity held strong and the right people took notice. I believe that this lesson should be instilled in children from an early age, as it will shape their entire life. Become a person known for your honesty, following through on your promises, and taking responsibility for your actions.
In the end, my investment in the Ascot project amounted to roughly $1,000,000, a sum I'll never recover. However, the lessons I gained from the experience were invaluable and worth the cost. I consider myself fortunate to have pulled out of the project, as the behavior of the landowner had the potential to escalate into even more problematic issues that I was not equipped or willing to handle.
In conclusion, my time on on Ascot has been a valuable and intense experience. I've learned a great deal about the world and myself, and I'm grateful for the lessons I've taken away from this journey.
I took a step back and refocused on other projects for a while. My work takes me to various locations, including Saudi Arabia, Australia, Puerto Rico, and the USA, and my home in the Bahamas serves as a tranquil escape between projects, as it was always intended to be.
Throughout my successful career in the luxury real estate market, I have come to realize that my true motivation lies not in financial gain, but in creating positive impact and seeing everyone involved thrive. The satisfaction of a project's success brings me more joy than any financial reward could. Now, I am committed to making a meaningful difference in all aspects of property development. With a diverse portfolio of experience, including some of the most challenging projects, I now find it easier to get involved in less demanding ventures.
Grand Bahama has faced its fair share of challenges since I started the Ascot project, including two more hurricanes, so the opportunities are now in rebuilding the community from the ground up. However, these setbacks have only strengthened my resolve to help rebuild the island and bring it back to its former glory. The original vision for Grand Bahama was to make it a hub for international business, commercial operations, logistics, and even manufacturing and assembly. It's a strategy that hasn't been pursued in recent years, and I'm eager to reignite this vision and help the island reach its full potential.
By focusing on job-creating initiatives and rebuilding the core foundation of the island, I believe we can establish Grand Bahama as a hub for commercial opportunities. This, in turn, will create long-term sustainable growth for the community and bring about a bright future for the island. The fancy beachfront condos can wait, as the real value and impact lies in rebuilding the community and leveraging the commercial potential of Grand Bahama.
Despite the fact that the Ascot project never came to fruition, I still want to express my gratitude to the individuals who were involved.
Harry Rahming, who encouraged me to take action and was there to present the site to investors.
Kevin Hubbard, who brought a wealth of experience and knowledge in island development.
Myles Newell, who excels in selling island property and has a deep understanding of the intricacies in his field.
Bianca Boie, who generously provided her interior design skills and unwavering support.
Randi Miller, who as a young Bahamian woman, inspired me with her support and decency throughout our adventures in real estate.
Graham Torode, who provided daily encouragement and a good laugh on tough days.
Sir Baltron Bethel, who offered wisdom and reassurance. Sean and Brad Callender, who invested a lot of time into the project.
The late Tony Porter, who enthusiastically supported the project despite the challenges he faced.
My daughters Georgia and Madeleine, who tolerated my absence as I focused on the project.
Lastly, my many friends and supporters who encouraged me and contributed what they could. Even though the project did not come to fruition, these individuals played a valuable role in the journey and I am grateful for their support.