Noting the need for the government to act quickly to spur economic activity on Abaco and Grand Bahama in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Deputy Leader and Shadow Minister of Finance Chester Cooper yesterday suggested that the government start with the purchase of Grand Bahama International Airport (GBIA).
Destroyed during the passage of the Category 5 storm last month, GBIA – which is owned by the Grand Bahama Port Authority and Hong Kong-based conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa – has not received international commercial flights since.
Cooper lamented, “Who knows if Hutchison will even rebuild it in a timely manner. We must create an enabling environment, quickly restore security and essential services and facilitate the private sector in doing what they do well, spurring economic activity.
“We could start with the Grand Bahama International Airport. Can we buy that too since we’re buying hotels there,” Cooper said as parliamentarians debated the Hurricane Dorian Replacement of Government Issued Documents (Exemption from Fees) Bill, 2019 in the House of Assembly yesterday.
“If you think it through, no one will come to the Grand Lucayan, if it’s ever sold, if the airport fees remain sky high. We have heard past and present ministers of tourism bemoan this anomaly. This might be a good time to press the reset button.”
Cooper said otherwise, the government should use its influence to get the current owners to expedite repairs.
Acting Chairman of the Grand Bahama Port Authority Sarah St. George yesterday revealed plans by the Hutchison group to build U.S. Department of Homeland Security TSA (Transportation Security Administration) certified modular units, from which the airport will operate until a new facility is complete.
While he generally supported the bill with no objection, the PLP deputy leader also suggested the government also waiver fees for the establishment of new small businesses.
“In terms of economic growth, studies show business slows during and after hurricanes hit, it brings untold grief and destroys wealth but rebuilding leads to a boost in economic activity,” Cooper said.
“After Hurricane Ivan in the Cayman Islands, for example, we saw renewal in George Town, the capital. That is one of the main takeaways from an examination of the economic effects of storms in recent years.”
Adding that he is deeply concerned about the country’s economic growth, Cooper said there is the chance for a speedy and robust recovery, with swift intervention and sound management.
“But we must approach it right. We can be the model for recovery and restoration in the region. First, let’s remove the red tape from distribution of relief supplies. It’s archaic and agonizing to put people through so much of it when they are trying to rebuild their lives,” he said.
“Then, let’s remove the red tape from approvals for rebuilding. Hire more inspectors to facilitate speedy approvals while still maintaining safety. Ask international organizations to lend expertise with other aspects of the rebuilding, as CARILEC is doing in Abaco. A little more speed will accelerate the physical recovery and the economic recovery and help with some emotional recovery as well.”
Cooper admitted that the government cannot spearhead rebuilding efforts alone and must encourage public-private partnerships, effectively engaging stakeholders and encouraging them to restart businesses and reinvest insurance money.
“In this rebuilding process we must encourage the employment of local contractors first and Bahamian contractors next, so that the money stays in the economy. However, I am not naïve. I realize that a swift rebuilding process will require some skilled, legal foreign labor. I just ask that we be smart about it,” he said.
“Make sure it’s not a free for all and also ensure there’s no basis for discrimination. But Bahamians first. And by the way, the $10 million for business development is a good start but it’s not nearly enough to restart the economic engine.”