I?d never heard of Eleuthera until an in-law mentioned it. I was looking for a quiet, nontourist, warm-weather place; close enough to the United States for a long weekend getaway or a stretch of creative writing; affordable even for a less-than-six-figure income; where the people were comfortable enough with themselves to be unimpressed by Americans, yet friendly; and where Black visitors were genuinely, warmly welcomed.
With the help of its tourist office, Eleuthera (pronounced E-loo-thra) – a remote island in the Bahamas, about an hour from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on a Gulfstream aircraft – gave me all of those things.
?We are an historically Black country,? declared Gary Knowles, administrator of Central Eleuthera District that includes the village of Governor?s Harbour where we stayed.
For four days in April on that little island – 110 miles long, two miles wide, population 11,000 – we strolled barefoot on a pink-and-white-sand beach with not a single other soul as far as the eye could see; ate our fill of conch fritters; hung out at the Friday night Fish Fry on the beach at Cupid?s Bay and at Ronnie?s Hid-D-Way, the only nightclub in town; explored investment opportunities; and engaged in lengthy conversations with local businessowners.
We stayed at Pineapple Fields, a 32-room condo-hotel on an 80-acre development site. Across the road from the hotel is Tippy?s Restaurant, Bar & Beach, a delightfully unpretentious place owned and managed by David Barlyn, an expat from New York. Tippy?s offers fine local food and drinks with equally fine service and music. The menu is written on a blackboard that waiters move around as guests arrive.
Majority Bahamian owned, Pineapple Fields is looking for development partners ?who will do something interesting; not money partners, but partners with money,? says Barlyn, who also manages the property. ?I want it to be a whole development community. I don?t want to sell to one person who will do a big mac- mansion,? he says.
The property takes its name from what once was a booming export crop. Those exports dried up with competition from cheaper pineapples from Mexico, Hawaii and other big fruit exporters. Today, the industry is coming back ?as a type of branding,? Knowles says. ?The vision of Pineapple Fields is, when you buy a house, you buy a plot to produce pineapples,? he says.
Investment opportunities abound in Eleuthera, with attractive incentives for foreigners and locals alike. The Hotel Encouragement Act, for example, provides duty concessions on imported inputs like building materials and furniture. According to Knowles, the market is more geared to boutique-type hotels, ?the small, high-end venture that will bring The Network Journal?s subscribers.?
The island also offers a high-end, second-home market that has attracted such celebrities as R&B icon Patti Labelle and rock singer-guitarist Lenny Kravitz. ?We?re seeing more African-Americans coming, wanting to buy land and have a home here,? says Michele Johnson, whose family, Bahamians, owns Quality Inn Cigatoo, a 22-room hotel in Governor?s Harbour that caters to a business and tourist clientele. Here, you can get the sumptuous local breakfast.
Investment homes at $2 million to $3 million a pop are under construction. ?The person coming in for that type of investment is bringing family to our environment, so even if there is a disaster they will stay,? Knowles says.
Eleuthera property prices have shot up in the past two years. Waterfront property, if you can find it, goes for $1 million to $2 million an acre. For property away from the beach, prices range from $70,000 to $100,000 an acre.
While investment is welcome, Eleutherans are picky about who invests and how they invest.? ?What I?d like to see is that when we have foreign investment it is more a joint venture type. Investment should come in where the locals are not workers but partners,? says Johnson.
Lionel Fernander, owner of the Sunset Inn, which has one of the most popular restaurants on the island, adds: ?I?d look for foreign investors who would use our land in an environmentally sound way ? do more Green management. They need to be conscious of how we build, to respect land use.?
As joint venture partners, ?Bahamians are not difficult unless you make things difficult for them,? says Arthur Roll?, an auto parts dealer who is the island?s sole distributor for Gastrol products and owner of the oldest movie theater on the island. ?There?s nothing on the part of the Bahamian people that would hinder your investment from flourishing,? he says.
With beaches on either side of the island, an international airport in each of the three districts, good telecommunications, plenty of water, three health clinics, resident doctors and air ambulance service in an emergency, ?tourism seems the best thing to get into,? Roll? says.
Laughing Bird Apartments, a one-acre property opened 24 years ago by Nassau natives Jean Davies and her late husband, Dan, provides accommodations at the modest end of the market. Four units of apartments are available for short-term and long-term stays. Davies loves to serve tea in the gardens. The beach across the road is laden with shells of all shapes, colors and sizes that you can gather to take home.
Women entrepreneurs are plentiful in hospitality. Further south, Ethel Knowles owns an 18-room hotel that rents rooms on a long-term basis to local teachers and other professionals. She also owns a grocery store that still shows signs of the video rental business that paid for her children?s education at Windemere High School, a local private boarding school. The video business died when cable came in.
She insists that she wasn?t always as sedentary as she seems. When her husband died 31 years ago, she took over his taxi and car-rental business. With 11 children and five stepchildren to feed, clothe, shelter and educate, she had no choice. ?I was one of the best taxi drivers. People would come back to the island and ask for the lady with the hibiscus rose in her hair. That was me,? she says.
Her sons now run the taxi and car-rental business.
You can gauge the economic health of a country by its level of local investment and entrepreneurship. Both are thriving on Eleuthera, though, some fear, there aren?t enough local entrepreneurs to harness the island?s huge potential.
?Everyone on the island does many things because in lean times you have to have your finger in many pies. You?ll often find your doctor is a plumber,? says Johnson.
Local investment is the backbone of the economy, adds Fernander, who is developing a half-acre oceanside site where he will put eight cottages. ?If we keep waiting for foreigners, we could have nothing to service them,? he says.
Two years ago, Dorothy Rahming, a retired home economics and music teacher, and her husband, Robert ?Gene? Rahming, opened Awesome Blossoms, a three-acre horticultural marvel in Savannah Sound in the central part of the island offering half-day tours. Living on the site, they have invested $100,000 of their own money in the property.
Denny Rankine heads Eleuthera Island Fishing, a family business in Savannah Sound offering ?the ultimate? in deep-sea, bone and reef fishing. ?I do absolutely everything in the water – snorkeling, big-game fishing. Everyone in my family lives in the water,? Rankine laughs.
Savannah Sound is home to some of the world?s largest bonefish, and home to one of the world?s largest populations of hawksbill turtles, an endangered species. Rankine, a staunch protector of the environment, has enlisted overseas environment groups to help keep renegade investors from destroying the sound. ?Investors come in, build homes, dredge the sound, sell the homes three years later and leave. We have to live with the mess they make,? he complains.
Darryl Smith, owner of Governor?s Harbour Bakery – arguably the best bakery on the island – has been in business since 1989. In addition to retail, he supplies rolls, johnny- cakes and pastries to restaurants locally and in Nassau. He plans to open ?one or two? more outlets. ?The economy is going to grow, new business will come in. That means you will have to make more changes,? he says. ?We can go wherever we want to go, be whatever we want to be. The sky is not the limit any more. We can go past that.?
We found Shafeeq Thompson sitting on a makeshift wooden bench in front of a boarded-up stone building opposite Ronnie?s Hi-D-Way, the nightclub his family owns. Ronnie?s was named after his grandmother Veronica. The oldest nightclub in Eleuthera ? it?s been operating for 45 years ? it caters to a local and tourist clientele at its weekend-only disco and outdoor concerts on the adjoining lot. It houses the only smokeshop on the island and supplies the entire island with cigarettes and cigars, including Cuban.
Hi-D-Way usually is the last stop of a Friday night hang that begins at the port in Governor?s Harbour, where villagers gather to see who comes in on the fast ferry from Nassau. From the port, you walk to the Fish Fry, sponsored by the Governor?s Harbour Development Association, for deep-fried grouper, french fries, conch fritters and conch salad and dancing in the street. After that, you amble over to Ronnie?s, where, if you?re lucky, you may see Dr. Seabreeze, the first Bahamian to sing in a New York nightclub and at the Grand Opry House in Wilmington, Del.
No one exudes the excitement, promise and pride of Eleuthera more than Thomas A. Sands Jr. and his sister, Chandra D. Sands. They typify the young generation of Eleutherans who were educated abroad and have returned to take the family business ? and Eleuthera ? to a higher level.
?The growth of this island is important to us,? says Thomas. ?Success is when every Eleutheran, every Bahamian, and like-minded people, would be able to live here, work here and sustain their families. That has been the benchmark for us.?
The family business started as a small store 36 years ago. Today, it is an integrated company, comprising a strip mall ? anchored by an ultra-modern supermarket? – an insurance brokerage and a realty enterprise. Thomas is at the helm of Cotton Bay Estates and Villas, a 200-acre luxury resort offering spectacular views of the entire island. Slated for completion in 2009, the resort will include a 73-room hotel under the Starwood Luxury Collection brand; a Grand Clubhouse with all the amenities – from restaurant and game room to retail space; business center; concierge services; tennis courts and swimming pool; ?floating? villas; and private homes. It is being developed with equity financing. To date, at least one African-American has taken an equity position.
Chandra, director and comptroller of the family?s Rock Sound Properties (1976) Ltd., also is the founder and president of The Mission Foundation, a philanthropic endeavor that is restoring and refurbishing South Eleuthera?s 140-year-old Mission House to house a museum, library, reading room, computer and resource center for use by Eleutherans and visitors alike. The project is estimated to cost $635,000, with subsequent annual costs of roughly $180,000 for programs, salaries and maintenance of the building.
Once an enclave for the likes of the British royal family, President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson and other wealthy Europeans and white Americans, Eleuthera is beginning to see a renaissance largely through local grassroots development. The hope is that the right kind of foreign investment will come in to help sustain that renaissance.
?It?s an incredible time, an exciting time in Eleuthera,? says Thomas.