Perspective

Promises, promises

The promise of GB’s rebirth was the greatest story ever sold    

There has been no island in the Commonwealth of The Bahamas to which more promises were made just prior to and during the 2017 term, than Grand Bahama.

Regarded as the forerunner of the Free National Movement’s (FNM) historic 1992 unseating of the Pindling-led Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) following the Marco City by-election of 1990, the adage emerged that “as goes Grand Bahama, so goes The Bahamas.”

Political sentiment being what it is for the island, and given its share of the nation’s gross domestic product, it was expected that Grand Bahama would feature prominently in the FNM’s trust charter laid out ahead of the 2017 general election.

Having given the FNM its five seats, Grand Bahama was said to have been “rewarded” with three Cabinet ministers including a deputy prime minister and minister of finance.

Many Grand Bahamians thought that with such weight in the Cabinet, surely the island would be well on its way to promised economic rebirth. 

After the overwhelming trust reposed in it by Grand Bahama and after years of economic stagnation that split households, deepened poverty, and put growing numbers of previously stable residents on social assistance lines, an FNM administration high on promises but low on delivery was the last thing residents expected, or deserved.

Rather than honing in on pledges unfulfilled, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has resorted of late to traveling to the island for a whirlwind tour seeking to get a leg up on projects his administration did not put down.

Hurricane Dorian came 

almost two-and-a-half years after the FNM assumed office, so it alone cannot be blamed for a failure of the administration to make good on any of its core promises to Grand Bahama.

The feeling of tremendous letdown on the island is palpable, and with good reason.

Manifesto unmanifested

Grand Bahama is the only island given its own chapter of the FNM’s 2017 Manifesto.

In it, 20 pledges were made specifically for the island, which the FNM said it would fulfill to “jumpstart and fix the Grand Bahama economy so that we may maximize and realize new, substantial, sustainable developments”.

Once elected, the party promised to “concentrate on the revitalization of Grand Bahama’s stagnant, depressed economy and give it renewed energy to restoring and expanding prosperity.”

Nearly four years later, the Minnis administration would be hard pressed to point to one of those 20 pledges as having been fulfilled by the FNM government.

Its first pledge was to repeal and replace the Grand Bahama (Port Area) Investment Incentives Act, 2016, to ensure that all Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) licensees receive equal treatment under the law.

The repeal of the act was a key campaign pledge for Grand Bahama, with the FNM promising to make business easier in Freeport by reducing bureaucracy for investors.

The act has yet to be repealed and replaced.

The FNM promised to “relocate the Bahamas Maritime Authority to Grand Bahama, establishing this island as the maritime capital of The Bahamas and leveraging the container port and shipyard infrastructure to attract additional investment in this sector.”

It promised to “utilize the airport infrastructure to develop the aviation industry and attract overnight courier services to establish airport clearing hubs on Grand Bahama.”

The party also pledged to, “focus on the development of Freeport as an offshore technology hub similar to Silicon Valley” and “establish a marine research facility in Grand Bahama”.

None of these pledges have materialized to date.

Continuing, the FNM pledged to “construct a new hospital to serve the needs of the Northern Bahamas”; “establish an investment promotions board with participation by the private sector, the government, the Grand Bahama Port Authority Limited and Freeport licensees”; and “identify Crown land in east and west Grand Bahama for the creation of a hydro-farm and a mariculture facility for the production of high demand crops and seafood for export.”

A new hospital was neither constructed nor initiated, an investment promotions board was not created, and if Crown land was identified for the creation of a hydro-farm and mariculture facility, neither project materialized.

Further, the FNM pledged to “promote Grand Bahama as an eco-tourism sanctuary”; “revitalize and promote a dynamic investment policy to encourage high net worth persons to buy and develop real estate to critical mass that is so badly needed in Grand Bahama”; “create incentives to establish a financial services sector in Grand Bahama”; and “expand the Lucaya campus of the University of The Bahamas to provide dormitory housing”.

East Grand Bahama was home to approximately six pristine ecosystems and three national parks prior to Dorian’s devastation, and over the years grew to become one of the country’s most popular destinations for bone fishing.

It is why environmentalists and residents expressed concerns when the administration announced plans to permit an oil refinery to be established in the east, given that oil refining is incompatible with ecotourism and environmental sustainability.

There is no evidence of the promised revitalization and promotion of an investment policy to attract high net worth land purchasers to Grand Bahama, whose second-home market has certainly seen better days made more challenging by Dorian-spawned delistings.

There is also no evidence of incentives created to establish a financial services sector in Grand Bahama.

And the northern campus of the University of The Bahamas did expand to provide dormitory housing, thanks to a $3 million gift from the Grand Bahama Port Authority.

UB North now sits as a relic of destruction following catastrophic damage sustained during Dorian nearly a year and a half ago.

In the government’s 2017 Speech from the Throne, that outlines its legislative agenda for the term, the Minnis administration said it “will launch the rebound of the island of Grand Bahama in accordance with the template of a master strategic plan designed for Grand Bahama.”

It is a strategic plan Grand Bahamians have repeatedly called for, but that has yet to be articulated.

Billions in dreams

Dream-selling is an unofficial industry for Grand Bahama it seems.

During this term, close to $8 billion in foreign direct investment projects have been announced for the island, and Grand Bahamians thus far have enjoyed none of the spoils from what was touted as a well-deserved bounty for the country’s second largest economy.

The government’s now infamous deal with Oban Energies was heralded as a $5 billion dollar project that would bring with it hundreds of construction jobs and scores of permanent jobs for the island, which has struggled with high unemployment for many years.

Minnis dubbed his administration’s signing with Oban as “a very significant development for Grand Bahama”.

The controversy surrounding some of the company’s principals and the government’s signing ceremony with the group is well-known, and it is fairly obvious that an undoubtedly gun-shy administration has no intention of forging ahead with an amended heads of agreement with Oban.

Following the Oban debacle, the prime minister made another multi-billion-dollar announcement, this time for the western end of the island that, like the east, is in want of economic development.

In his January 2018 national address, Minnis announced that Toronto, Canada-based Skyline Investments, through its Grand Palm Acquisitions Ltd. vehicle, “will construct, repair, revitalize, develop and operate 246 rooms in three hotels, a banquet facility, 116 branded hotel residences, 1,000 other residences, a hotel/casino site, approximately 150,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, a spa and wellness retreat, two marinas, an 18-hole golf course including driving range, an IFR-rated airport, a resort hospitality training academy and an organic farm.”

A year later, Minnis said, “We are making progress on the Bahama Bay resort and residential development, the former Ginn Sur Mer. This development will include 173 condo-hotel units, a marina and the development of a smart city.”

It was a $2.5 billion investment project with a heads of agreement signing imminent, according to the prime minister, but when the deal fell through, the fanfare was replaced with silence.

Minnis’ 2019 progress report on the project was less grand than that of the previous year, and no mention was made to the nation that Skyline was no longer pursuing plans to purchase the former Ginn property.

A month before the prime minister’s 2019 address, Skyline announced it was not going ahead with the purchase of the Old Bahama Bay hotel in Grand Bahama, and that it had succeeded in identifying an alternative buyer, according to its March 2019 Annual Information Form (AIF).

Toronto-based real estate firm Intercap Inc. had replaced Skyline late into the negotiations to purchase the property, and since that time, no updates by government have been provided on the project’s status.

Also in 2019, Minnis announced several other projects he said were approved for Grand Bahama.

Those projects were Globe United, a European-based medical call center and administrative office; G.B. Biopharma, a company engaged in biomedical services; DevDigital Bahamas Limited, a Bahamian joint venture web development company; Agriculture Enterprises Development Limited, a Bahamian joint venture farming company that will engage in a pilot fruit and nut farm producing coconut, castor and palm oil for the local market and for export; and Bahamas Golden Harvest Limited, Bahamian joint venture chicken hatchery company, producing eggs, chicken feed, cash crops and citrus on East End Grand Bahama.

Like the projects announced before them, what was introduced to Grand Bahamians with much fanfare has at this point joined the cadre of pronouncements that make up perhaps the greatest story of Grand Bahama’s rebirth, ever sold.

“An outrage”

Grand Bahama, like Abaco, is still working to recover from the crushing blow dealt it by Dorian.

Unlike Abaco, the island’s primary utilities and Freeport’s infrastructure are not provided by government but by private entities, the absence of which would be unthinkable in the aftermath of successive natural disasters.

As was the case for Abaco, the work of US-based non-governmental organizations and donations from around the world in the aftermath of Dorian saved and preserved lives, fed and clothed storm victims, and made storm-damaged homes livable for scores of displaced residents.

But there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done to restore normalcy in Grand Bahama’s ground zero, where lives were lost and hundreds of homes were destroyed.

On Sweeting’s Cay, which sits just off the eastern mainland of the island, residents are still living in tents 17 months after the passage of Dorian, and failed promises by government to expedite resources necessary to get residents out of tents, have rubbed residents raw.

Perspective revisited the cay last June to find that very little had changed since our initial visit several months after Dorian swept homes and businesses off foundations, and tore the island’s fishing community asunder.

After our June 2020 report was published, the Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA) announced that donated modular homes would be erected on the cay.

On June 15, the authority said, “Twenty container homes will arrive in Grand Bahama on June 26 courtesy of the MSC Foundation. The structures will be erected on Sweeting’s Cay and the technical team of the Bahamas Disaster Reconstruction Authority will be on the ground this week preparing.”

But two weeks ago, the authority’s managing director Kay Forbes-Smith told The Nassau Guardian that the homes had yet to be erected because approximately $200,000 needed for the work was not available.

Temporary housing materials have been sitting on the cay exposed to the elements since their delivery.

Stepping up to the plate and continuing with their yeoman’s work of hurricane response, the island’s Rotary clubs have announced that they will rebuild homes on the cay through funding provided by the TK Foundation.

In response to the declaration that DRA funding is not available for housing restoration on Sweeting’s Cay, Heather Feaster-Ferguson, founder of the Sweeting’s Cay Heritage Association, told us, “We are highly disappointed in the way that we were treated all around. They have treated us as if we are not even Bahamians. We were left to struggle on our own.

“It is an outrage. I cannot even find words to say how that makes me feel. Persons who have nothing and that were depending on this; I am heart wrenched at this point. It is a disappointment to see the way that the people are treated.

“Thank God the people of Sweeting’s Cay are resilient, and I just thank God for the people and the NGOs he sent to assist us.

“If it was not for Jesus, where would we be?”

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