Perspective

Adjusting to change

Approximately 80 percent of businesses in Freeport had re-opened late last year post-Dorian, according to the Grand Bahama Port Authority’s (GBPA) most recent assessment, but the number of businesses that have since closed is still unacceptably high, according to Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce (GBCC) President Gregory Laroda.

For small business owners who have reopened their doors in Dorian’s aftermath or have started new ventures, the key in the island’s post-disaster market has been to find ways to adjust to the current needs of residents, and to keep the faith that prospects will improve in time.

In response to our questions following-up on last year’s post-storm survey of its licensees, GBPA Director of Group Corporate Affairs Philcher Grant told Perspective, “The GBPA has completed its survey and assessment of businesses post-Hurricane Dorian [and] post-our surveys last October, results indicated that approximately 80 percent of businesses reopened.

“Since that time, we have not conducted a follow-up to the post-storm surveys; our focus has been to assist existing licensees through our micro and small business economic recovery program (RISE).”

Grant pointed out that the GBPA has seen a boost in new licensees post-Dorian, “which is helping to revive the small business economy of Freeport.”

For the GBCC’s part, its on the ground assessments have continued, with Laroda asserting in a recent interview with us, “We still feel that there is an unacceptable number of businesses that we are still noticing are closing their doors; ones who, after the hurricane, still had their doors open but have since closed and left the island, especially businesses that were Nassau-based.

“We have observed just from moving about, that some of the businesses that, after the hurricane in September, said that they were going to tough it out and try to rebuild, have since closed, and then some of the businesses that were just frustrated because these hurricanes seem like they won’t let up and said ‘that’s it’, a few of them are still open.”

Given that the island is still in a recovery and reconstruction phase, businesses that cater to essential needs and services are performing better than those whose products and services may be considered luxuries.

Coupled with this is a loss of critical mass in Dorian’s aftermath, as hundreds left homeless and unemployed, evacuated the island, leaving businesses with a smaller customer base in which to compete.

Laroda has been agitating for the development of a comprehensive and articulated economic plan by GBPA and the government that the island’s stakeholders can buy into, and points to ongoing ease of doing business concerns and lack of cohesion between the two sides as stumbling blocks to progress.

He explained, “There has been improvement within the last few months with what the Port is doing, but I think what is really negatively impacting us is, because we do have the Port Authority and we do have the government, you tend to see, sometimes, this ‘wait and see’ approach of who is responsible for what.

“And, so, if you speak with the Port, they’d probably tell you ‘well the government isn’t co-operating in doing this’. And you speak to the government, it’s probably the same thing.”

For business owners and residents whose disposable income and assets have been hard hit by Dorian’s impact, this dichotomy reigned front and center when the Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC) announced the implementation of a storm recovery charge to recoup its over $15 million in uninsured losses incurred during last year’s storm.

Minimum of five years for new fee

Commercial and residential customers will pay the new storm recovery charge for at least five years, according to GBPC spokesperson Takia Taylor, who responded to a number of questions we put to the company on the controversial fee, which prompted angry residents to call for government intervention.

Taylor explained that 41 percent of GBPC’s residential customers will see a monthly charge of $4.50 or less; another 44 percent will see a monthly charge of between $4.50 and $10; and 15 percent will see a charge higher than $10.

Based on average consumption, 58 percent of commercial customers use 1,000 kWh or less monthly, Taylor advised, and will see a charge of $8 or less, while another 31 percent – GBPC’s mid-sized commercial customers – will pay $40 or less.

Eleven percent of the company’s largest commercial customers will see a charge of $40 or higher, Taylor added.

Though the new storm recovery charge is expected to yield $3 million each year over the five-year period, which would “pay down” the Dorian losses, Taylor said GBPC is “recommending continuing to collect the charge after five years to build up a surplus to deal with future storms”.

But, according to Grant, in response to our question on how the company’s regulator – the GBPA – will oversee the use of the revenue collected from the new storm recovery charge, the charge will be discontinued once GBPC’s Dorian losses are recouped.

She advised in a subsequent telephone interview, “As this fee is a separate line item [on billing], it allows for better accounting and scrutiny, so that once the fees have been recouped, the line item [will] be removed.

“It is also important to note that while there is a five-year period, should the funds be recouped at an earlier date, the line item [will] be removed.”

After evaluating public statements made by GBPC and Deputy Prime Minister Peter Turnquest on the reasons for and timing of the introduction of the new charge, we questioned Taylor on whether GBPC made a request of government for financial subventions to support the rebuilding of its transmission and distribution infrastructure in the hard hit areas of east Grand Bahama.

Taylor said, “As we shared with the public back in mid-January, we are continuing to work with donors, stakeholders and government on a longer term renewable energy future for East Grand Bahama.

“We want to see communities to the east powered by resilient renewable energy systems backed up by a robust power supply from Freeport, resulting in a faster, cheaper restoration following future storms.”

Given that her reply did not answer our question directly, we asked Taylor for a direct response, but no response was provided.

‘Holding the faith’

During our visit to businesses in Freeport, we met small business owners who were maintaining a hopeful outlook while recognizing the need to adjust their sails to maximize Dorian’s unfortunate winds of change.

In the downtown district, hard-hit by storm surge flooding, but now on the rebound, we met PJ Smith, a freelance graphic artist who is working on rebuilding his clientele by providing peer-to-peer consulting, and designing custom business cards for business owners who lost everything in the storm.

Eager to talk to us, PJ explained of his new business model, “I was willing to adjust and adapt to the environment, so I was able to offer them a lower price.”

Adapting to a disaster-altered environment is what Brian Bullard, owner of Complete Business Systems, has been forced to do, after the infrastructure for his two-way communication service to industries and commercial businesses suffered significant damage.

“Business has not been good, in part, because we are still trying to restructure and rebuild,” he indicated.

“Secondly, our primary customers have had a shift in the way they do business and so, there’s a dramatic fall-off in the way we do business and the income resulting from the way we do business.

“The outlook is to re-evaluate the marketplace and shift and tweak to bring forth a new type of customer.”

Newness is what Frisco Jordan, 35, and his business partner, Quincy Frazier, aim to bring to the market via their new carwash venture, Perfect 10 Car Wash, which they launched a month ago.

Hard at work, Jordan told us, “I normally do air conditioning work but [Quincy] always wanted to open a car wash, and so, I came along with him.

“We might expand. We’re trying to throw up some more tents and will try to introduce foam wash to Freeport for the first time, bring in some new stuff.”

For Tyrone Adderley, owner of Joe’s Meat and Produce Market at the Mall at Coral, adding new categories of inventory is what he has opted to do to meet the needs of shoppers who are in constant need of housewares.

“People are looking for household items,” he pointed out. “So, the key is adjusting and having to expand your inventory to satisfy individuals as they come in because they are not just coming in for a bag of chips anymore, they are looking for household stuff.”

In the cut and thrust of rebuilding, it can be easy to minimize the need for individuals to have access to self-care items to aid in them returning to a sense of normalcy.

It’s a reality that Diedra Strachan, co-proprietor and makeup artist at Rosa’s Boutique and Beauty Loft, understands all too well, as she revealed that some women on the island will come in to buy something as small as a tube of lip gloss just to feel somewhat normal again.

Of the store’s reopening post-Dorian, she said, “It has been okay. We have been able to get through the Christmas rush, and coming into the new year, it’s a little bit slow, everybody’s getting back to normal and still trying to get their houses together, so, it’s been a little bit down but we’re holding the faith.”

When considering the business prospects moving forward, she cannot help but think about what she hopes does not lie ahead this hurricane season.

“It’s scary,” she shared.

“You know, we’re about to hit summer again and we’re about to go back in the storm season and I think everybody is still on edge and basically preparing for that again, so, I’m just hopeful we don’t get another storm because it is just going to set everything back again.”

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