Opposition Leader Philip Brave Davis yesterday blasted the government’s Economic Empowerment Zones Bill, 2018, as a flawed exercise that will exploit the poor, lead to gentrification and offer favorable benefits to wealthy Bahamians.
Davis called Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis’ Over-the-Hill program a “sham”.
“Looking at the bill, it comes up short, and there is no reasonable response,” Davis asserted during debate on the bill in the House of Assembly.
The Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador MP said the distressed communities that make up Over-the-Hill need real, long-term solutions, not a bill that “falls short” of addressing the structural challenges plaguing those areas.
He said the government should encourage policies that create access to employment, offer skills and education training and create a path to accessing capital and business grants for residents.
“This [special economic zones] framework is guaranteed to increase property values, increase rents and lead to higher business profitability in an exclusive outcome,” Davis said.
“In short, this does not benefit the vulnerable. This hurts the poor. This displacement policy will favor one side, creating concessions and loopholes promoting gentrification.
“It will cater the highest returns to business and investors who will take advantage of tax-free incentives.
“Meanwhile, the poor and the vulnerable have to pay 12 percent VAT.
“It is unclear whether residents in the Over-the-Hill area will benefit or be kicked out.
“How does the government intend to achieve a balance between promoting development and protect existing residents?”
The Economic Empowerment Zones Bill, 2018 details tax exemptions and benefits for residents and businesses in the designated tax-free zones.
The prime minister said that the bill is designed to encourage residential and commercial property development and investment in the zones.
Businesses with an aggregate turnover of $5 million or less will be exempt from customs duties for the import of commercial vehicles, business license fees and excise tax.
Residents who are seeking to build homes in the zones will receive exemption from customs duties on all materials necessary for the construction or reconstruction of buildings and structures.
Homeowners in the zones will also be exempt from real property tax, excise tax and stamp duty.
Businesses that sell alcohol as their primary activity, and gaming houses, are not eligible for the exemptions.
Once it is brought into force, the bill will expire on July 1, 2023.
The prime minister said the first economic empowerment zone will be between Nassau Street on the west up to Collins Wall in the east and from Wulff Road and Poinciana Drive in the south to Delancy Street in the north.
The government will move to declare other zones including Englerston, St. Barnabas, Rock Crusher, Kemp Road, Fox Hill and Gambier, he said.
Minnis said the initiative will lead to increased opportunities for Bahamians living in those areas.
“It is my firm belief that many areas and communities in our Bahamas will thrive and flourish if afforded more opportunity,” Minnis said.
Education: College of The Bahamas, English