In the final part of a five-day series on the Cayman Islands’ economic growth story, we feature the territory’s largest developer and investor.
A publicity-shy billionaire whose family made their fortune from foam cups is the driving force behind the extraordinary development that has changed the face of the Cayman Islands over the past two decades.
American-born Kenneth Dart, 64, who renounced his US citizenship in 1994 and moved to Cayman, owns a group of companies that holds a significant proportion of all Caymanian real estate.
The Dart Group has developed new hotels, office buildings, a park in each of the territory’s five districts, a school and even the new town of Camana Bay, whose master plan includes many more phases that will take multiple decades to complete on the 685-acre site close to Seven Mile Beach.
Dart Real Estate estimates that it has developed about US$1.5 billion of real estate in Cayman, with at least another US$1 billion in the pipeline.
With some 800 employees across the group, Dart is one of the islands’ largest employers.
Mr Dart’s net worth has been estimated at about $5.8 billion by Bloomberg. The foundation of his wealth was his interest in the family business, the Dart Container Corporation of Mason, Michigan, a pioneer manufacturer of polystyrene foam cups.
Global investments in real estate development, finance, retail and hospitality have added to his wealth. Mr Dart has also profited from his interests in vulture funds, which buy the distressed debt of governments in crisis for cents on the dollar and then go through the courts to force those governments to pay out much more on the debt. Greece, Argentina and Brazil are among the sovereign debt issues he has profited from.
Mr Dart prefers to shun the limelight. He last gave a press interview in 1993, the New York Times reported last year. He lives in a grand beachfront home that was once a hotel known as the West Indian Club, which he bought in 1994. A year later, he bought the Coral Caymanian hotel, which came with 236 acres of land, an area that would go on to form the basis of Camana Bay.
Another key purchase came in 2011, when Dart acquired the Courtyard Marriott Hotel, which had been closed for about three years. With the agreement of the Government, he then built a new road, redirecting West Bay Road to allow the redevelopment of the former Courtyard site. The road was widened from two to four lanes and it was extended through Camana Bay, via an underpass, built with the intention of allowing pedestrians to walk from the town centre to the beach without crossing the highway.
On the site of the demolished Courtyard, Dart built the Kimpton Seafire Resort and Spa. When it opened in 2016, the AAA Five Diamond resort was Cayman’s first new hotel in a decade.
In the same year, Dart acquired the former Hyatt Regency hotel, which had never fully reopened since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, a site at the northern edge of Camana Bay. Dart also bought the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman in 2017 and added the Comfort Suites at Seven Mile Beach to its hospitality portfolio last summer.
Dart’s signature project is Camana Bay, the town it is building from scratch. After a decade of planning, ground was broken in 2005 and the town centre was built first.
Today, Camana Bay has a business community of more than 2,000 people and is home to some 40 shops and restaurants. Butterfield Bank opened a new banking centre there this month.
Michael McWatt, who leads Butterfield’s Cayman operations, said Dart’s hotel investments and real estate development made it a “a huge contributor to Cayman’s success”.
“They’ve elevated the product, whether it’s commercial offices, the tourism product or infrastructure,” Mr McWatt said.
“That all helps when people or entities are looking to invest in Cayman. They also have a very good relationship with the Government and are involved in many public-private initiatives.”
Demand is such that Dart is building a new office building and a residential apartment building in Camana Bay, having received planning permission in December. It is also working on Olea, a project that will add 124 condominiums, townhouses and duplexes to the new town, to be built in four phases. Dart is also adding a CI$60 million (US$72 million) extension to its Children’s International School that is close to the new neighbourhood.
At the same time Dart is developing at full throttle, it extols the virtues of sustainability. Two of the office buildings at Camana Bay were built to Leed Gold standard and the group’s Kimpton Seafire hotel, which boasts a large array of solar panels, achieved Leed Silver status last year. Leed is an internationally recognised green building certification.
“Sustainability underpins everything we do,” Mark VanDevelde, chief executive officer of Dart Enterprises, said. “We are committed to Cayman and its sustainable future.
“At Dart, we are directing our attention and resources to creating exceptional opportunities, places and experiences that enrich lives now and for future generations.”
Decco, Dart’s construction company, last year won a government contract to deal with Grand Cayman’s eyesore of a garbage dump, the summit of which is Grand Cayman’s highest point and which is known ironically by the locals as Mount Trashmore.
Decco will cap the landfill with the intention of turning it into a green space, and will build and operate a trash-for-energy and composting facility to deal with about 95 per cent of new trash. Dart also prides itself on its community support, having provided grants and donations worth about $6 million since 2013.
While much of Cayman’s development is focused on the high-end market, developers are also responding to a growing demand for affordable housing as the population expands.
Randy Stafford, of Bermudian business Stafford Flooring, which opened a Caymanian operation in 2011, said: “The developments on this island are amazing.
“I’ve got to think they’re got something like 500 condominium units under development right now. They’re not big — 500 or 600 square feet — and it’s a different market from Bermuda. These units sell for less than US$300,000.
“Build it and they will come — that’s the way it is. Cayman’s on fire right now.”
Availability of land will limit future development. Grand Cayman comprises 76 square miles, about a third of which is marshland.
However, Dart is showing no signs of taking its foot off the development accelerator as it looks to build upwards, as well as outwards.
The developer has proposed a new skyscraper hotel in Camana Bay, something that would require changes to planning laws that restrict building height to ten storeys.
Justin Howe, executive vice-president of real estate development and operations for Decco, said at a Chamber of Commerce event last June: “An iconic tower has the potential to be more than just a building. It can become a symbol of Cayman’s standing on the world stage.”
The tower would help to attract high-net-worth visitors who have “a disproportionately positive impact on the economy and government revenues”, Mr Howe added.
Mr McWatt said he was confident that Cayman’s growth spurt could be sustained.
“We do have the infrastructure and the land to grow,” he said. “So we do have the potential to grow the population.”
He added: “I don’t see anything in the economy that gives me pause. We’re still very much tied to the US economy, so that could have an influence.”
Speaking before news broke that Cayman is set to be placed on a tax blacklist by the European Union, Mr McWatt added: “There are always going to be headwinds from regulatory and international pressures. But I think the Cayman Government has been very proactive in addressing those issues.
“I think there’s a good chance we’re going to see that growth continue over the short to medium term.”