What’s next for Grand Bahama?
Grand Bahama International Airport has not reopened to international traffic since the passage of Hurricane Dorian on September 2.
There is no longer any doubt that climate change has increased the frequency and the strength of annual storm activity impacting Grand Bahama. Over this past weekend the airport, open only to domestic traffic, proved dangerously vulnerable to surging seas, the result of the season’s first cold front with gale force winds.
Residents of the island have lost count of the number of times the airport has been put out of commission since Hurricane Floyd flooded its runways and terminals 20 years ago in September 1999.
Last week, the minister of tourism recorded his view that Hutchison Port Holdings, 50 percent owner of the airport, was “somewhat reluctant” to rebuild it.
He indicated that the government had the purchase of the airport under consideration.
He made no mention of the position of the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) nor did he acknowledge the $40 million plus investment by Hutchison Port Holdings that permitted the last reconstruction of the airport’s international terminal and the restoration of the airport following hurricane-sustained damage.
Then on Thursday, the GBPA indicated that it was in “high level discussions” with the government over the purchase of the airport.
We must presume that “purchase” means “transfer”.
It appears to us that the governmental development model adopted for Freeport in 1955 has run its course.
The private sector ownership structure of the GBPA is failing to meet the challenges of modern administration and economic expansion needed to sustain Freeport as the major economic and job creation center that The Bahamas needs it to be.
Immensely successful during the 1960s and 1970s with the introduction of casino gambling, hotel construction, a deep-water port, first-class infrastructure, a modern airport, oil refining and bunkering and creation of pharmaceutical manufacturing, Freeport’s economic prospects dimmed during the 1980s.
The mid-1990s economic boost created by the entry of Hutchison Whampoa into the Freeport economy has not proved adequate to meet the growing challenges faced by the city or indeed the island.
What is clear is that since the early 1990s the GBPA has been shedding its responsibilities under the Hawksbill Creek Agreement to its own private economic and financial benefit but at the expense of Freeport.
The 1955 Hawksbill Creek Agreement provided for the GBPA to develop the Port Area including related industry and hold administrative responsibility including providing electricity and water utility services, maintaining road infrastructure, schools and teaching staff for children residing there, medical facilities and accommodations for government employees including police, customs and immigration and to engage in civil aviation activity in conformity with applicable law.
In the ensuing 60 years, the GBPA surrendered, and the government assumed, much of its administrative responsibilities.
The government has provided three high schools and three primary schools in the Port Area, assumed responsibility for medical care, caused the development of office accommodation for public officers and provided air traffic services and control at the airport.
In the early 1990s, the owners of the GBPA sold their electrical plant to a foreign company, divested themselves of 50 percent of the ownership of the Freeport Harbour, the airport and the development company to Hutchison Whampoa, an Anglo-Chinese conglomerate. Hutchison was then persuaded to enter the hotel sector in Freeport and become the GBPA’s monied partner.
Immediately, Freeport and all Grand Bahama needs a functioning international airport.
The 1960 amendment to the Hawksbill Creek Act provides “that the government shall at all times use its best endeavours to ensure that the Port Area shall be efficiently and adequately served by aviation facilities for all purposes”.
We will return to this subject on Wednesday.