The Ministry of Tourism and Aviation yesterday signed a contract for the acquisition of Grand Bahama International Airport for one dollar, plus roughly $1 million in staff-related costs.
The signing brought the months-long negotiation process, which began in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, to a close.
The airport, owned by Hutchison Port Holdings and Port Group Ltd., sustained significant flood and wind damage in Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis said yesterday that “every crisis brings new opportunity” as he promised the redevelopment of the facility in a more resilient way.
“I am pleased to announce today that we are delivering on our commitment to purchase the Grand Bahama
International Airport,” he said.
Minnis added, “We will develop a modern facility that is designed and built to be resilient and meet the weather conditions that are experienced during the frequent storms that affect Grand Bahama.
“This new facility will also enable the return of U.S. preclearance.”
Minnis noted that in the meantime, $1.5 million will be spent repairing the current facility.
“These funds will be utilized to rebuild the customs warehouse, carryout elevator and structural repairs to the air traffic control tower, and secure office space for the airport management team and airlines,” he said.
Minister of Tourism and Aviation Dionisio D’Aguilar said the complete redevelopment will cost tens of millions of dollars.
“It makes no sense, to me at least, to build back a facility that is prone to the same amount of devastation and destruction that has been sustained in the past,” he said.
“We must build back a facility that can sustain wind speeds in excess 150 miles per hour and is not be wiped out by storm surge in excess of 20 feet.”
D’Aguilar said expert airport consultants will be hired to advise the government on the design of the new facility.
“The government will seek to enter into a PPP, a public-private partnership, to assist in the rebuilding of this airport,” he said.
“Private sector funding and private sector management, coupled with government ownership, similar to the structure at Lynden Pindling International Airport will be the way forward for this airport.”
The government has been in talks with the owners of the airport since Dorian, noting that the owners have shown no interest in restoring the airport, despite the commitment to provide an international airport in the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
Many have been critical of the government’s decision to purchase the airport, as well as the notion that Hutchison has been allowed to abandon original parts of its agreement when it is convenient.
But Grand Bahama Port Authority Acting Chairman Sarah St. George said yesterday that the government is purchasing a fully functioning airport for a low price.
“Even during the one-dollar sale transition period of last year, this [fixed-base operator] FBO was refurbished and outfitted to operate as a terminal costing several million,” she said.
“And despite the COVID-19 lockdown and ongoing operating costs in many hundreds of thousands, there were very few layoffs.
“Though the terminal is not what we had become accustomed to, today, the government is acquiring a functioning airport that meets domestic and international [Transportation Security Administration] TSA standards for flights in and out of Grand Bahama.”
D’Aguilar also defended the purchase, noting that it allows for decisions to be made that are in the best interest of Grand Bahamians.
“Almost every major airport in every major city in every country on the planet is owned by the government,” he said.
“…They may in some cases be operated by an experienced airport operator. But the ownership of the land, buildings, runways and taxiways is almost always owned by the government.
“The ability of the government to direct and control such a crucial piece of infrastructure is critical to the development of any economy.
“And it was for that reason that when the offer was floated for the government to purchase the Grand Bahama International Airport, Prime Minister Minnis directed me and the minister of state for Grand Bahama, James Kwasi Thompson, to go forth and buy the people of Grand Bahama and by extension the people of The Bahamas, this airport in Freeport.
“The people of Grand Bahama through their government must own this airport and thereby regain control of how it is developed, how it is operated and how it can best be used to improve economic outcomes for the tens of thousands of Bahamians who live on this island.”
Minnis said that the 63 airport employees will be given the option to be re-engaged or receive compensation packages.
“Through this purchase, we have ensured that all who want to be will be properly engaged by the Airport Authority, with the appropriate compensation packages,” he said.
“The official turnover date is May 31, 2021, and the contracts to the employees being re-engaged will be issued during the week of May 24.”
He said the airport acquisition, as well as the government’s decision to purchase and resell the Grand Lucayan Resort is evidence of its commitment to the revitalization of Grand Bahama.
D’Aguilar said yesterday that the sale of the Grand Lucayan is also nearly complete.
“We were also hoping today to conclude the sale of the Grand Lucayan Hotel, which is, interestingly enough, contingent on Royal Caribbean and the ITM group concluding their arrangement with Hutchison for the building of their cruise port down at the Freeport Harbour,” he said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m advised that everything is finally falling into place.
“The government has an agreement to purchase the airport. The government is in the final stages of concluding an agreement to sell the hotel. And Royal Caribbean and ITM have an agreement with Hutchison to use and invest in the Freeport port.
“Hopefully, all of these stars can stay aligned so that we can complete what has been a long and arduous set of negotiations, made more difficult by the onset of the coronavirus.
“The conclusion of all of these transactions will, we believe, signal a new beginning for Grand Bahama, which, as we all know, has been the brunt of so many external shocks and extreme weather events, that for many the situation has become desperate.”