If Freeport does not rebound, Grand Bahama will not rebound.
Given this inarguable reality, it was astounding to hear the prime minister in a press conference held yesterday, announce certain key incentives for economic recovery on Grand Bahama that included no mention of the hundreds of businesses and thousands of homes and rental properties in Freeport left damaged, closed and uninhabitable due to unprecedented storm surge inundation caused by Hurricane Dorian.
East Grand Bahama, Abaco and impacted cays will be designated as Special Economic Zones making these areas eligible for tax breaks and incentives, two of those being access to a $10 million government-guaranteed loan facility and the ability to import or locally purchase items for home reconstruction and material replacement, inclusive of vehicles, tax free for three years.
East Grand Bahama was devastated, yes, and should get all the help the government can provide.
Freeport was also devastated, contrary to what the prime minister told the nation following his initial post-Dorian visit to Grand Bahama, and should also get all the help the government can provide because Freeport is the commercial center of Grand Bahama and most of the jobs on the island are provided by businesses within the city of Freeport.
If Freeport’s businesses do not rebound, thousands more Grand Bahamians than who were unemployed before the storm — including those in east Grand Bahama — would be jobless.
And you cannot repair and rebuild your home, your life or your community with no income — government incentives or not.
One only needs to take a drive in Freeport along Queen’s Highway and adjacent properties, and throughout the downtown district to see that Freeport’s businesses have suffered extensive damage. Many are closed for the foreseeable future.
And due to the current lack of potable city water on the island, many businesses that are structurally able to restart operations but require potable water, cannot do so.
Access to capital has always been a challenge for Bahamian business owners, so what is the rationale behind not including Freeport in the announcement regarding access to $10 million in government-guaranteed loans to rebuild storm-damaged businesses?
Does the government believe business owners in Freeport have easy access to capital that other business owners do not have simply because their businesses are in Freeport, especially now that their businesses and hence their access to revenue, is shut down?
Small businesses are the drivers of our economy, and it is more than reasonable to expect that most will not have the finances to start over again. And with many small businesses renting from landlords, their ability to re-open in the same location will depend on the ability of those landlords to repair and rebuild.
In the days after the passage of Dorian, Perspective visited the downtown area where shell-shocked business owners were quietly and mournfully discarding damaged inventory.
Not a word could be heard from any of them and the air was filled only with the sound of products hitting the pavement as they were tossed in piles for collection by Sanitation Services.
These business owners in Freeport, just as the business owners in east Grand Bahama, Abaco and the cays, need help now and they will need this help for the foreseeable future. It will not take months to rebuild Freeport’s economy; it will take years and the public treasury can ill afford to have this recovery lag or worse, falter.
Thousands of Freeport homes damaged and destroyed
Estimates put upwards of 70 percent of Freeport as having experienced extensive flooding during Dorian, with thousands of homes on the island gutted or leveled.
The “homeless with a home” in Freeport is the substance of a health hazard that is not receiving the public attention warranted as thousands are living in mold-infested structures because they have nowhere else to go and no money to pay contractors to carry out repair work.
Most lost their vehicles due to flood damage.
Living in Freeport has not automatically enabled residents without Bahamas Customs bonds to bring in and locally purchase home items and vehicles tax-free despite popular, uninformed belief.
There will be almost no one who can afford to rebuild their home or rental property in 90 days under standard exigency order timelines.
Home and property owners in Freeport ought to have the same ability to replace and rebuild tax-free for three years as those in east Grand Bahama.
Dorian did not differentiate between the Freeport bonded area and the east when it unleashed its fury, and the government should likewise make no differentiation in the level of assistance Bahamians in both segments of Grand Bahama ought to be able to access to get back on their feet.
No economic recovery without the international airport
The Grand Bahama International Airport, a joint venture operation between the Grand Bahama Port Authority and Hutchison Whampoa, was destroyed in the storm.
This is the second time such devastation has occurred at the airport; the first happened due to storm surge caused by Hurricane Frances in 2004.
There is no such creature as an economic rebound for Freeport without that airport.
The United States’ pre-clearance facility operated from the Grand Bahama International Airport and now that the airport is gone, so is pre-clearance for the island — an essential if tourism via-airlift for the island is ever expected to be re-established.
Though the prime minister yesterday foreshadowed a signing of a port deal with Carnival Cruise Lines for Grand Bahama, the reality is that a fully operational port by Carnival is a ways off yet, and it would not be surprising to see lucrative construction contracts for this project go to Nassau firms owing not only to damage suffered by Freeport construction firms, but also due to the focus that existing local contractors will be placing on damaged homes and businesses on the island.
And as we know, cruise passengers are not stopover visitors and are relatively low-spend guests if they leave the ship at all.
So while the Carnival deal would no doubt be welcomed news, it by no means should be used to give the impression that Grand Bahama is suddenly on an economic rebound as that, for now, is far from the truth.
The reality is that just as the central government will lose multiplied millions in revenue due to devastation to Abaco and Grand Bahama’s economies, the Grand Bahama Port Authority will lose millions as well, with naturally a far smaller revenue base to pull from than that of the central government.
There is no such creature as an economic rebound for Freeport without the Grand Bahama International Airport.
So it is incumbent on the government to indicate what strategies are being pursued along with the Port Authority to get the island’s international airport rebuilt.
Calls and questions by Perspective to Grand Bahama Port Authority President Ian Rolle on the Port’s specific plans to assist with and facilitate the economic recovery of Freeport were not responded to up to press time.
Grand Bahama is hurting
From the multiple storm deaths and storm-related injuries on the island to the loss of homes, businesses, livelihoods and dreams, thousands throughout Freeport and east Grand Bahama are hurting and do not know how they will recover.
And while west Grand Bahama was spared the wrath of Dorian save for flooding in the Bootle Bay area and along Bayshore Road, those in the west who are employed with Freeport businesses now closed, are hurting as well.
When the prime minister dubbed Freeport as having sustained “minimal” damage, fears emerged that Freeport might not get the attention from government it needs in order to maximize its potential to rebound.
If Freeport does not rebound, Grand Bahama will not rebound.
And as the prime minister once told the nation, “as goes Grand Bahama, so goes The Bahamas”.
It is therefore incumbent that the government make the playing field equal for Bahamians in Freeport to access all offered incentives for the same period of time as those in the rest of the areas impacted by Hurricane Dorian.