Boulevard of broken dreams

“We smile, but we are a hurting people,” Fenrick Russell said with a furrowed brow, pained expression, and a glimmer of congeniality that mirrored his spirited description of fellow Grand Bahamians.

Years of unfulfilled promises, natural disasters, record unemployment and expectations unmet on the part of central and quasi government on Grand Bahama, have left much of the island’s tens of thousands of residents weighted with unrelenting pressure and uncertainty about their island’s future.

Poor job prospects have resulted in families being separated as breadwinners leave the island or country in search of employment, and many of the island’s aspiring youth struggle to see a benefit in remaining in the place they call home.

At first glance, it can be difficult to tell the strain residents carry in their hearts and minds every day.

But those who live in the country’s “second city” know that behind the smiles on Grand Bahama lie grand angst and fear, as residents and business owners struggle to maintain on an island that political parties desire to win, but where far too many are being left to lose.

Fool’s gold

During the gold rush of the 1800s in the United States, miners believed they had hit the jackpot when they discovered what they believed were large caches of gold which turned out to be nothing more than pyrite, an iron sulfide that resembles gold to the untrained eye, and was later dubbed “fool’s gold”.

Approximately $8 billion in foreign direct investment projects, thousands of new job opportunities and legislative changes to bolster commercial activity have been promised to Grand Bahama so far this term, creating a rush of enthusiasm over the appearance of economic goldmines.

From government’s Speech from the Throne, to maiden national addresses following the May 2017 general election, to parliamentary platitudes, Grand Bahama was celebrated as essential to the nation’s economic revival, and its residents were routinely encouraged to prepare themselves for the gold coming their way.

“My government realizes that a healthy and strong Grand Bahamian economy is vital to the growth and development of the entire Bahamas,” affirmed this administration’s legislative charter, and in 2018, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis told the nation of his government’s “master strategic plan” designed for the island.

Close to three years later, than plan has yet to be cogently articulated, and projects said to be aligned with the same have either failed, or have yet to come to fruition.

What was touted as a $5 billion oil refinery deal with Oban Energies for east Grand Bahama has infamously fallen off the radar, and though the company’s principal insists that interest still exists for development in the now storm-torn segment of the island, Cabinet appears to be running out the clock on government’s term in office without executing an amended deal with the company.

Then, what was touted back in 2018 as a $2.5 billion revitalization of the former Ginn Sur Mer development in West End and the promise of 1,400 jobs, fell apart with the departure of Skyline Investments, a Toronto-based firm that was originally in negotiations to purchase the Old Bahama Bay hotel and approximately 1,500 acres of land that made up the former Ginn project.

Government never addressed the nation on the failure of the West End deal, and the disappointments did not end there, as the heavily touted establishment of a technology hub on Grand Bahama failed to get a good start out of the blocks following the closure of the sought after hub’s first plant, GIBC Digital, which closed less than a year after its launch.

The Minnis administration promised in 2017 to establish an investment promotion board to promote Grand Bahama as a place for doing business and recreation, and promised a repeal of the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investment Incentives Act 2016, trumpeting the same as a key step toward making business easier in Freeport by reducing bureaucracy for investors, and ensuring that all licensees of the Grand Bahama Port Authority receive equal treatment under the law.

Neither pledge has been fulfilled to-date.

Minnis and State Minister for Grand Bahama Kwasi Thompson on separate occasions in 2018 and in early 2019 respectively, announced “approved” investments for the island including G.B. Biopharma, a biomedical firm; DevDigital Bahamas Limited, a Bahamian joint venture web development company; Skyward Techno, a computer software company which he said had a $2 million plan to create 100 full-time jobs, and 180 part-time jobs.

Agriculture Enterprises Development Limited, a Bahamian joint venture farming company developing a pilot fruit and nut farm and Bahamas Golden Harvest Limited, another Bahamian joint venture establishing a chicken hatchery and poultry produce facility for east Grand Bahama, were also announced.

When Perspective questioned the state minister early last year on the status of these projects, Thompson said he would request the information from The Bahamas Investment Authority, but provided no further update.

“Believe it when I see it”

“The joy that you find here you borrow; you cannot keep it long it seems,” —a line from Al Dubin’s 1930s popular standard, Boulevard of Broken Dreams — is a foretelling apropos for Grand Bahama, which has had its excitement over promised rebirth repeatedly crushed by disasters both natural and manmade.

Many Grand Bahamians mark time by the anniversary of major hurricanes, because storm systems over the last 16 years have stripped away significant aspects of Freeport’s luster, the island’s economy and its quality of life.

The Royal Oasis resort, previously the world renowned Princess Resort and Casino, and the adjacent International Bazaar, stand as hauntingly dilapidated relics of Hurricane Frances’ fury in 2004.

Commercial complexes throughout Freeport sit condemned and are a vexing eyesore following 2016’s Hurricane Matthew, and Dorian’s devastation three years later in September 2019.

And 12 years after Frances relegated one major resort and economic lifeline to the history books, Matthew exacted significant damage to portions of the Grand Lucayan property, triggering a series of events that currently see yet another major hotel property sitting silently in progressive decay.

The Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) is the island’s quasi-government agency and regulator of commercial activity in Freeport, and while government has been chided for its failure to produce a comprehensive development plan for the island, the GBPA has also been justly criticized over the years for its failure to produce such a blueprint.

When we questioned the city’s regulator on the impact of Dorian on its number of business licensees in Freeport, the GBPA advised that to-date, 37 of its licenses were cancelled since last September.

It most notably indicated that, “we cannot accurately determine how many licensees have actually gone out of business or not continued their operation.”

Why the agency charged with regulating and promoting commerce in Freeport is unable to make such a fundamental determination was not explained, but the same points to a critical shortcoming in the GBPA’s economic management structure.

In response to our query on new licensees and the categories thereof post-Dorian, the GBPA said, “We can confirm that we have issued 84 new licenses as of September 2019 to-date.”

The new business operations, according to the GBPA, are of small to medium sized businesses in the retail/services, construction, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sectors.

The two largest investments heralded by government for Freeport this term have been a cruise port by the Carnival Corporation, which originally secured a heads of agreement under the last Christie administration for a port in east Grand Bahama, and the redevelopment of the Grand Lucayan and the Freeport Harbour by a joint venture of Royal Caribbean International (RCL) and the ITM Group.

Carnival secured a new heads of agreement (HOA) for its proposed port in Freeport last September, an agreement government has yet to provide to the Bahamian people by way of its tabling in Parliament.

Unsurprisingly, Carnival’s President and Chief Executive Officer Arnold Donald recently confirmed that the company’s proposed development for the island would be delayed for an unspecified period, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Grand Lucayan which was purchased by the Bahamian people two years ago remains unsold and is now closed, with Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar making repeated assurances that RCL and ITM remain “interested” in closing their deal that was slated to close by June.

D’Aguilar recently intimated that the value of the proposed $250 million project will likely change as sale negotiations drag on during a historically challenging period for the global cruise industry.

His statement spurred questions about what a revised deal might entail, since observers previously queried whether $250 million was already too low a proposed investment for the magnitude of resort and port redevelopment reportedly agreed to.

Just as with government’s HOA with Carnival, its agreement with RCL and the ITM has also not been tabled in Parliament, leaving Bahamians unaware of the exact terms of the deal, and of its force majure stipulations.

For now, the promise of thousands of direct and indirect jobs from both projects for Grand Bahama remains exactly that.

After years of letdowns, there is little wonder that the average Grand Bahamian responds more often than not to assurances of economic rebound, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

“Who do we turn to?”

Russell, whose comments opened our piece, spoke to us outside the headquarters of the Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC), where residents recently gathered to protest the company’s planned October introduction of a storm recovery and stabilization fee that was originally set for April 1, and was suspended due to COVID-19.

We understand that the GBPA — Freeport’s utility regulator — has since rejected GBPC’s request to implement the fee next month.

Sharing his take on the struggle of Grand Bahama life, Russell disclosed, “The average person in Grand Bahama is literally financially wounded since 2004. Frances and Jeanne literally put us in the position of humiliation and then humility, so we are a humble people when it comes to our finances.

“I watch people that I thought were just the most astute and who I thought really had it going on, and I see them in their humble position standing on social services line and the different places trying to get help, so it tells me people are desperately hurting.”

Self employed mother Tina Moss conveyed, “The struggle is real; trust me it is real. Trying to get everything done at the same time and paying these high bills is rough.”

Of the economic toll on her business efforts, she continued, “Everybody is trying to hold the dollar tighter than they used to. If you don’t have to do it, you don’t do it.

“The quality of life is way different. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t an adult because it’s rough. You’re off, and the bills just keep coming and coming and you have less and less to give. But you don’t want the kids to know that mummy don’t have it and daddy don’t have it, so you just do what you could.”

Shielding one’s children from the pain of economic hardship is what Jamal Garland also expressed, telling us, “It’s really been tough being out of work, working in the hotel industry which is set to start October 15, but with the VIP (vacation in place) plan I don’t think that’s a good plan.

“But the light bill is extremely high and you have to choose between paying mortgage, light, or feeding your family which is extremely difficult. You have to try make the best you could do, but you can’t let the children see that because you don’t want them to be depressed.”

Garland pointed to the October 5 scheduled reopening of schools as being an added challenge financially, and said he is still awaiting receipt of some unemployment benefit payments owed to him by the National Insurance Board.

Dwaine Marshall echoed their sentiments, stressing that, “Day to day in Grand Bahama is a constant struggle for food, for rental assistance, for power bill, for water bill; every single thing it’s been a struggle.

“It’s like 70 percent of the people on Grand Bahama is not employed,” he opined. “You see our hospital? We can’t even afford to get sick now.”

Refurbishments to the storm damaged Rand Memorial Hospital — the island’s only hospital — are more than six months behind schedule, leaving healthcare workers to treat the public and battle COVID-19 in less than adequate conditions, and rendering residents afraid to access its partial services should the need arise.

The presence of heavy industrial operations on Grand Bahama makes the absence of a fully functioning and modern hospital facility especially dangerous, and unacceptable for the country’s second most populated island.

Juliann Bartlett offered, “I feel like we are forgotten; we are basically the forgotten island.

“For me personally, it’s hard especially after the storm; jobs are scarce. I work in the tourism industry. Hotels are closed; we have no idea when the hotels are going to be open due to the pandemic. It’s hard and bills still have to be paid.”

In the midst of the protest bubbled a sentiment that Grand Bahamians must begin to look within themselves for the answers to their economically and socially troubled island.

There was a clear sense that protestors have grown tired of looking to government, both central and quasi, in whom they have lost a great deal of trust.

Bartlett’s mother Luann Edwards stood with her daughter and told us, “If we want to see something happen, we have to do things to make it happen because this is our Grand Bahamaland, and we have to make a stand and we have to stand together.”

Daquan Swain, 25, organized the protest, and despite the setbacks and heartbreaks Grand Bahamians are enduring, the vibrancy and energy of the young man’s advocacy told of a Grand Bahamian spirit that by no means is out for the count.

He told us, “It hurts my heart, being a young Grand Bahamian right now in this Grand Bahama. It hurts my heart because you have situations where young men are being locked up for trying to provide for their families. What do you expect a young man to do?

“A pandemic hits and jobs were already not all that accessible in Grand Bahama. It’s like every single year, it’s just something that puts us in a 10 steps back position.”

With a full fledged election season fast approaching, government releases have emerged boasting of filled-in pot holes and random tree-trimmings; which hardly win residents over to the idea of a Grand Bahama on the move.

Swain argued, “We live in a democratic system of governance where we elect officials to advocate on our behalf. We vote them in and we give them that X because they’re supposed to advocate our problems in the House of Assembly.

“We are not getting that, because if we were getting that, you would not see all these people out here standing for one common problem.

“Who do we turn to? We only have ourselves, and we are prepared to stand for ourselves.”

It is a resolution we hope Grand Bahamians and indeed all Bahamians will come to, recognizing that Bahamians who are willing to stand together have the greatest ability to effect a departure from a boulevard of broken dreams.

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