Government continues to push Deluxe deal despite criticism

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The Gaston Browne-led Cabinet has yet again announced plans to buy Deluxe Cinema, but says it would have to raise the money to follow through with the proposed deal.

This comes just weeks after the government announced it would start occupying the premises from January 1, 2019, and when it also said it was not in a position to buy the building.

A similar proposal was made some years ago, and it was immediately met with stiff political and public condemnation as many contended that it was a “bailout” for Cabinet member and Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) MP Charles “Max” Fernandez and his family who are shareholders/owners of the cinema.

The latest announcement of government’s plans came from Chief of Staff Lionel “Max” Hurst over the weekend.

He said, “The government has made the decision to purchase it. The rental over a very short period of time would amount to the cost of purchasing it and we took into account that there is a tenant in the building and there might even be a second tenant forthcoming dependent upon circumstances and therefore it might seem that in spending the money of the people of Antigua and Barbuda, it is better to own, especially a piece of real estate in the middle of St. John’s that will not deteriorate in value, than to rent.”

He added, “As a consequence that the government would purchase it after all, we’d have to go out to find the resources to make the purchase.”

Meanwhile, Hurst did not disclose any of the ideas that the government may have discussed about how to raise the funds nor did he give any timeline.

But, he said, “The property will henceforth be called—following the purchase—the Antigua and Barbuda Performing Centre for the Arts. It will be a place for rehearsals, innovation, shows and other kinds of in-door performances. Already, a National Youth Orchestra will be provided with instruments that the High Commissioner in London has acquired. Other kinds of artistic and cultural events will find a permanent place for the display of talent. The terms of the purchase would later be worked-out with a bank.”

According to Hurst, last week the Cabinet asked Minister Fernandez to recuse himself during a debate on the future of the Deluxe Cinema property.

In a post Cabinet press statement, he indicated that following an analysis by the minister responsible for festivals and culture, and the input by several Cabinet members, “the Cabinet decided that a purchase of the property was in order and very well worth the current offering price of EC $8,000,000.”

But, up to now though, the government has not told the public how much it would have to spend to retrofit the building for the new purpose.

Critics have suggested the government should focus on renovating the Multipurpose Cultural Centre and completing the car park in St. John’s.

OBSERVER media reached out without success to Fernandez to ascertain whether he and his family were aware of the Cabinet decision and would accept the government’s offer.

It was in October 2016 that OBSERVER media first learned that the Antigua Commercial Bank was foreclosing on the Deluxe Cinema. MP Fernandez was the second largest shareholder in the business after his brother Joseph Fernandez up to 2009, according to records at the Intellectual Property Office.

The government’s planned purchase of the property was only announced in March 2017 when it said it would buy it for $8 million, which was less than the reported market value of $11 million.

At that time, the Cabinet said it calculated the rental being paid by a restaurant, the cost which would be required of the government were it to rent, set against the amount of the monthly mortgage which would be amortised in about 15 years, and the Cabinet concluded that the wisest decision was to buy it, but the deal never went through.

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