Thursday, Dec 12, 2019
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Fighting for survival

Their small businesses are not only their careers but their only source of livelihood, so the inspiring determination of entrepreneurs in Freeport is akin to a fight for survival, but it is a fight three months after Hurricane Dorian made daunting by a storm-ravaged economy and uninsured losses.

Perspective re-visited the island’s downtown district where a number of shops are open for business amidst many stores and offices that have not yet reopened following extensive flood damage.

Much of the traffic to the downtown stores comes from surrounding communities which all suffered varying degrees of storm surge flooding, leaving would-be shoppers with far less disposable income than would have previously existed.

Occasional foot-traffickers navigated past weekend street evangelists as they made their way through the slowly recovering district where store owners are hopeful ahead of the holiday season.

Inside Happy Kids Snacks and Variety, one of several businesses in the Merport Building, proprietor Lorena Jusma is serving customers in her store she says is now 75 percent operational.

“Life is a war, you have to keep fighting,” she told us as she highlighted the importance of getting back to business.

“I cannot give up because I am a mother. I have many responsibilities and I have to look out for my family, for my kids,” Jusma continued. “I have to continue to push it until I can see that nothing is going to happen, but I cannot just give up after the first time something like this has happened.”

Her sister and husband help out with the business, which eliminates the need for hiring staff, and repairs and mold remediation are still ongoing as is the situation next door at The Trinity Unusual where proprietor Curlene Miller is capitalizing on the continued closure of larger stores that sell similar merchandise.

“I have an advantage that some of the bigger perfume stores are closed so now I have some customers that come that probably would not have come,” she pointed out. “My losses were like over $5,000 in merchandise; I had to rebuild all my showcases and I just got my fridge up and running today.”

There was never a doubt about starting again, Miller affirmed, and with no staff to pay her pressing need is to borrow a minimum of $5,000 to complete necessary repairs.

“I’ve been to the government office and I got the form [for assistance] but I haven’t carried it in as yet because I had closed my account at my old bank and I was supposed to put it to another bank but I did not get to them as yet, and my old bank would not give me any information and you need that to put with the form,” she disclosed.

As part of government initiatives in the designated Special Economic Recovery Zones of Grand Bahama and Abaco, businesses can apply for grant funding or guaranteed loan assistance, which is what Lynn McIntosh of AG Chemicals and Janitorial Supplies said she hopes will come through to assist her with the $15,000 she needs to start again.

Each day, McIntosh sits under a white canopy tent adjacent to her shop space still under repairs by her landlord, selling what inventory she was able to purchase stateside where she was recovering from illness.

“I’m not going to give up on my business place,” she stated. “It’s been pretty slow out here right now; a lot of my stuff that got damaged I just sell them for as little as 50 cents because at least that’s a dollar I can deposit in the bank.”

McIntosh was unable to retain her staff of four after the storm, and is assisted by her granddaughter Jasmine who is able to help while she awaits the reopening of her workplace, the Club Fortuna resort.

“The landlord has given us until December to pay the rent,” she noted. “I want to open up for Christmas and I have faith that it is going to work, you will see.”

Contents uninsured

Of the 10 small business owners we spoke to, none had contents insurance.

McIntosh and Miller bemoaned the expense of insurance amidst minimal profits and the standard expenses of rent and utilities.

The average insurance premium for contents valued at $50,000 is less than $100 per month, with the option of just fire coverage running at about a third of that cost on average.

The maximum amount of losses small business owners we spoke to cited was $20,000.

It is the amount in losses that Raymond Charlot said he suffered as he paused from repair work to his store, Classic Men’s Fashion.

“You know the story, most of us small businesses did not have insurance,” he said resignedly as his wife Ivena looked on, both hopeful to reopen in several weeks in time for the Christmas season.

“When it was hurricane Matthew we were across the road in the Savoy Plaza and the building got destroyed and we lost everything,” he divulged. “After about 16 months we moved here and within two years we’ve lost everything again.

“You never know, you have to go through something to get something,” Charlot surmised as his rationale for not giving up. “You never know after this what is going to happen so instead of closing down we are still going to try; we are praying for the best.”

Deidree Farquharson, proprietor of Forever Hair Beauty Supply Store, was also among those not carrying contents insurance, reasoning that, “Even if I had insurance I would have never thought to insure against flood; to make it cheaper for me I would have opted out of the flood insurance.”

Fortunately, she was able to salvage much of her inventory and her business is well-stocked notwithstanding a loss of $20,000 worth of contents.

Having now completed the last of repairs, Farquharson stressed that indiscriminate dumping in the downtown area post-Dorian has become a deterrent to business.

She offered that, “A lot of people don’t come to town because they feel town isn’t what it should be; it is not appealing to the eyes and so many businesses have closed since the storm.”

As for government assistance with loans, Farquharson said she preferred not to get into debt at this time and would rather work with what she has for now, a sentiment expressed by vendors at the Farmer’s Market several blocks away where most stalls remain closed to tourists and local shoppers.

“We have to make a decision”

Genevieve Collie of Cool Jenny’s at the market is one of many proprietors on the island who suffered losses to both home and business – a double-disaster that has led some to close up shop permanently.

A veteran in the tourism industry and a market vendor for the past 13 years, Collie is now faced with replacement costs for necessary appliances that she cannot afford to bear.

“I was in the tourist industry from I was 16,” she said. “Freeport is flat on its belly and it’s not going to be a quick fix on Grand Bahama.

“I used to work at the Royal Oasis and I’ve been in this city for 45 years,” Collie continued, “and I just pray the economy can turn around for the small businesses so people can go back to work and if they work, the money will filter here in the market.”

For Kephee Bain, co-owner of the popular Bojangles Seafood Haven, the end of the year is decision time for her and her husband on whether the over decade-long establishment will remain in business.

“Honestly it’s really been a struggle,” she said as she prepared our order of scorched conch. “I lost all of my industrial appliances and we had some structural damage.

“Through perseverance and determination we came back because the restaurant is our total livelihood so we had to try to mobilize and try to get everything back as quickly as possible to at least reopen.”

But she and her husband are eyeing a move.

“If nothing turns around by the end of the year my husband has already said he wants to go back home to Sandy Point, Abaco, and wants to set up something like this over there,” Bain stated.

“We’ve been here 13 years and we’ve developed a rapport with customers and so I didn’t want to just pick up and leave,” she said sadly, “but right now I am not seeing a tangible turnaround and so we will just have to make a decision because we have got to live.”

 “Almost suicidal not to
have insurance”

Michael Garvey of Garvey’s Tool and Equipment Rentals is among those on Queen’s Highway where scores of medium to large businesses sustained catastrophic damage.

“For me with hurricanes it’s bittersweet because I always get hit hard because of my location on Queen’s Highway,” he expressed, “but I make a lot of money from the cleanup effort and so we are moving along and I’m not going to jump ship on Freeport yet.”

Garvey has carried out basic heavy-equipment cleanup for the city’s larger businesses and has assisted smaller businesses, and since he was fully insured he has been able to replace his lost equipment.

“It is almost suicidal in business not to have some sort of insurance because we are going to constantly get hit and it’s not only storms that we have to worry about so I bite the bullet and make sure I am insured,” he maintained.

“My advice to business owners is to take photos of your business and equipment and go through your policy very well to make sure that everything is covered because some people had hurricane insurance but not flood insurance and a lot of people just don’t read their policy.”

Garvey’s family-owned business has opted to retain its full staff count as has Kelly’s, one of the island’s large businesses that suffered extensive damage that, according to operations manager Lewis Alman, is targeting a reopening of part of its retail store in time for Christmas.

He advised that, “It is full steam ahead and we are not laying anyone off.

“We are trying our absolute hardest to be able to open the first section of the retail store slightly before Christmas because we know people are desperate for some home furnishings so that it can help them get back to normal, so we are going to push as hard as we can,” Alman said.

The store has approximately 120 employees.

Hard at work in the building supplies section was Vincent Charlton, supervisor of Receiving and the company’s Employee of the Year 2019 whose optimism and outlook made it apparent why the staffer of almost 19 years was chosen for the award.

“Now we are starting to see that we are going to get this thing going,” he affirmed.

“It was depressing and demoralizing at first,” Charlton added while atop a forklift.

“I walked in the store and in building materials the first day after we came back from the storm and some tears flowed down my face and I just couldn’t stop it because I had never seen that kind of destruction.

“We are at the point now where we see that this thing is going to work – a lot of people are depending on this to get their lives back together.”

 

“Slowly but surely we’re
getting there”

Amber Hall’s bubbly personality greeted us at OMG Couture on Settler’s Way, adjacent to residential communities still reeling from unprecedented flooding.

Her boss and store owner Angella Rolle suffered thousands of dollars in damage, she indicated, as over five feet of water tore through the business, which coincidentally celebrated its one year anniversary on September 1, the day Dorian made landfall on the island.

Hall is from Murphy Town, Abaco, and after tearfully sharing the harrowing account of her and her family’s survival during Dorian’s killer passage, she expressed a longing for home.

“My family and I were inside the house when the house started breaking apart,” she recalled. “We had to hide behind the fridge until the eye came over and we had to go for our uncle who lived next to us and they were outside in the storm for two hours in a chicken coop because their house lifted off the foundation and flew back into the bush.”

Her boss, who she came to know while on Abaco, opted to employ her to assist during this difficult time.

“I miss home,” she said wistfully. “I would do just about anything to go back home because that is my safe place plus I am not working just for me, I have a son so I have to do what I have to for him too.”

A short distance away at N&M Convenience Store, which sits on the border of the flood-ravaged Hudson Estates subdivision, owner Marvin Clarke fights to press on having also sustained major damage to his home.

“It’s been a fight, I’m still maintaining but it’s a struggle because just as you make money, money has got to go,” he noted.

“It was very important to get back to business because this is the foundation and this is what has things moving, this pays the bills.”

Many of his customers moved away from the area due to the extent of the damage to their homes, but he is optimistic that as the distribution of relief supplies begins to wind down, he will see more of an uptick in sales.

“As the food distributions taper, business is starting to pick up,” Clarke told us. “Slowly but surely we are getting there.”

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