Residents react to big announcements for island
The announcement by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism, Investments and Aviation Chester Cooper on Thursday that a deal has been finalized with a consortium to undertake a $200 million redevelopment of Grand Bahama International Airport (GBIA) was hailed by him as “great news” for the island.
Cooper also listed $1 billion in investment projects that are in the pipeline for Grand Bahama, including an announcement about a $300 million eco-resort development in West Grand Bahama expected to break ground by the end of the year.
However, some Grand Bahamian business leaders worry there are lingering problems with the system that result in projects not reaching fruition.
Cooper made the announcement while speaking to a cross section of business owners and investors at Grand Bahama Business Outlook, which was held at the Conference Centre at Grand Lucayan resort.
Several sessions were held throughout the one-day event, including a panel discussion focusing on the topic: ‘The Way Forward for Grand Bahama”.
Panelists included Ian Rolle, Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) president; James Carey, Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce president; Thomas Dean, an attorney with Dupuch & Turnquest; and moderator Barry Malcolm, former GBPA executive.
Dean said there is a need for reform.
“Freeport as a city has been an enigma for a long, long time,” he said.
“A lot of people still to this day do not understand how it works, how it intermingles, how it coexists with the government of The Bahamas when it comes to business approvals, how foreign investment is handled.”
Dean said clarity is needed and investors must be comfortable and have confidence in what they are putting their money into.
“We have to get to the point of who do we want here, how do we get them here,” he added.
“Find those people, create pre-packs (investment models, approvals and timeline) … these are the goals that need to happen, these are the things that need to be facilitated, but that would not happen unless we have the coming together of the government, the GBPA, licensees and the residents.”
Dean said it is also necessary to bring people back to the island.
“Bahamianization,” he said. “We have a city built for 250,000 people but we have a population of 40,000.
“We had a population that was much more than that. Economies are not driven by money, they are driven by consumption. What steps need to be taken to ensure we have a repopulation of Grand Bahama?
“The politician may not be able to stand up and tell you that one working man creates three local jobs, but I have seen it in the Cayman Islands and elsewhere and it’s something we need to look at.”
During the question and answer segment, attorney Kirk Antoni, who has lived and worked on Grand Bahama for the past five decades, questioned the size and scope of the proposed airport project.
“Do we need a $200 million airport to get the flow of people coming to Freeport,” he asked.
“The domestic terminal is still a disgrace. Just speak with Sunwing passengers, who are the only ones using that terminal.
“How is the Weller Group going to bring in investors if they come off a plane and have to pick up their luggage off a forklift or pallet?
“We need action now, people, not in two or three years’ time when an election is about to be called.”
The airport, which was badly damaged in Hurricane Dorian in September 2019, has not reopened and is operating out of the former private airport.
Former owners – GBPA and Hutchison Port Holdings – sold the airport to the government for $1, but did not repair the facility.
The current facility does not have accommodations for US Customs and Border Protection Preclearance.
Veteran taxi driver Craig Gray told Grand Bahama News he was pleased to hear that the airport deal was final and about the other investment projects.
However, he said he hopes that it all does not turn out similar to the Grand Lucayan resort sale the government announced with Electra America Hospitality Group last May.
“It was exciting news, but in the end turned out to be nothing. So, I hope this doesn’t happen with the airport, too,” Gray said.
“I have been driving taxi for years. I have seen great days, good days and worse days. It has been bad for a long time and we need something in Grand Bahama to happen now, so I pray this comes off.
“We need to get people working and making money on this island.”
Businesswoman Virginia Forbes said while she is grateful that investment projects are on the way for the island, residents are tired of hearing of projects being in the pipeline.
“I want to know what is the government and the Grand Bahama Port Authority going to do to bring these developments to the point of putting concrete in the ground and buildings going up,” Forbes said.
“Yes, we appreciate that there are investments coming, but when and how long are they going to keep promising and doing nothing?
“We had Ginn, we had Electra, all a bust.
“How much longer do they want Grand Bahamians to keep hanging on to promises? I believe if the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the government – or whichever administration is in power – need to come together and just make a plan to get this island moving.
“It can happen. Get a plan, stick to it and just do it!”
Many residents agreed that they are grateful that the government is working to bring solutions, but said that at this point, “seeing is believing”.