bahamas islands
Bahamian pines post Dorian
Grand Bahama pines five years after Dorian

Five years ago Grand Bahama suffered the worst hurricane in its recorded history. And no-one could predict when it would bounce back.

Port Lucaya
Lucayan Market Place. Photo Pietro Valocchi, wikimedia.

As a result of Dorian in September 2019, the second decade of the 21st century seemed a tragic epoch for what had been designed as the industrial heart of The Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Even one year afterwards the World Kitchens charity was distributing some 25,000 meals a day on this island of 45,000 people.

But come 22 March 2024 Derek Newbold told the press: “Many of the projects we have been working on for years are now coming to fruition. We have investments now taking place in the maritime sector, hospitality sector, upgrades to the Grand Bahama International Airport, investments in financial services, health care, education, and manufacturing, as well as real estate, which is coming back in a big way. There’s more than $2 billion worth of projects in Freeport underway or about to be started later this year.”

On 2 April the Grand Bahama Shipyard, founded in 2000 by major cruise lines and the GBPA, announced it plans to offer the largest floating dock ship repair facility in the hemisphere by 2026 and the largest in the world by shortly after with another arrival. It lost two of its three docks in 2019. The new docks are being built by CSSC Qingdado Beihai Shipbuilding Co. Ltd in Qingdao, China. The smaller dock will be transported in one piece on a heavy-lift ship and the mega dock in four sections.  These are likely to increase the company’s turnover from $80 million to $250 million within the next five years. The shipyard already boasts 92% occupancy by handling 100 cruise and commercial vessels.

GB shipyard project
The 2025-2026 shipyard transformation project

This article is part of a new non-profit multi-media project in which Global Insights (www.global-geneva.com) is partnering on the Mediterranean, coastal and island communities, and the world’s oceans. Featuring significant youth and educational components combined with credible information outreach in the public interest, we are focusing on both threats and innovative solutions ranging from climate change and conservation to sustainable tourism, innovative technologies and the preservation of cultural heritage. For more information, please see: www.helpsavethemed.org

The projects include a $250 luxury settlement with $10-20m houses to go on sale by Six Senses Residences this season.

Six Senses site
The Six Senses site
Projected homes
How the development is expected to look.

A $600 million project by Carnival cruise lines expects Grand Bahama will welcome 4 million visitors from its boats each year by 2028. In February Carnival announced it would double its capacity for tourists with a $100m extension, all due to open in summer 2025, and another two berths to be ready in 2026 to receive four ships at a time.

More important for the economy of the island, the project is expected to create over 2,500 direct jobs over the next two decades, generate $3.2 billion in incremental revenues for the government, and contribute $9.7 billion in incremental economic impact to The Bahamas’ GDP.

Carnival Cruise Lines is expected to hire about 300 employees directly and create more than 400 indirect jobs through the port development, with 13,000 passengers and 3,000 crew members landing each day.

Additionally, the project plans 50 retail outlets of varying sizes and more than 20 food and beverage shops or stalls.

Eighteen ships from more than ten ports are expected to come calling. In all, more than two million guests are expected to visit Celebration Cay annually.

Celebration Cay
Carnival’s plan for Celebration Cay: five ‘portals’ and a giant sandcastle.

Carnival’s rival Royal Caribbean is considering buying the historic, 184-room Xanadu Beach Hotel — once the watering hole of the Hollywood Rat Pack and reclusive financier Howard Hughes’s last lockdown — to build a resort and water park. It has been closed since 2011. Royal Caribbean already promotes all-in resort experiences from cruise ships at Coco Cay.

Xanadu in its glory
Xanadu in its heyday, with Howard Hughes’ penthouse at the top and a renowned beach restaurant.

Royal Caribbean announced shortly before that it is also expanding the Grand Bahama Shipyard in Freeport, Bahamas, co-owned with Carnival Corporation and Grand Bahama Port Authority. The transformation of the major container and maintenance port may cost $450m and Royal Caribbean has a 40% interest in the shipyard.

In 2020 it had considering taking the Royal Lucayan Hotel off the Government’s hands and buying the adjoining Market Place, in a deal also involving the port. RC said: “Plans included a transformation of the Lucaya Property into a beachfront destination, which would include a 526-room hotel, shopping village, spa and wellness center, water and adventure park, convention center, adventure activities (such as ziplining), restaurants and bars, and entertainment.” But this was cancelled at the end of December 2023 when the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Tourism, Investments, and Aviation Chester Cooper stated that “the government was frankly not satisfied with what was proposed or that the project would be advanced in the short or medium term. We were not willing to continue on without clear timeline for completion and were of the view that many of the terms were not in the best interest of the Bahamian people.” Negotiations for the port proved a major stumbling block

But RC insisted: “Royal Caribbean still plans to participate in the new bid process for the resort, though.” It says it is looking for a new partner in the project.

Freeport Harbour
Freeport Harbour. Photo: Arnold Reinhold, wikimedia

Eagerly awaited here, too, is the reconstruction of the international airport that was badly damaged in Hurricane Dorian. Demolition of the old main terminal began mid-March, with a $200m reconstruction due to be completed next year.

The International Airport
Freeport’s International Airport under construction. Photo: Grand Bahamas Museum

Sustainability and innovation

Grand Bahama is now also promoted as “a beacon of sustainability and innovation” with recent environmental projects.

BAL
Photo Blue Action Lab

Rupert Hayward, a director of the GBPA, wrote in the Nassau Guardian: “By embracing the blue economy, a concept that promotes sustainable development through the responsible use of marine resources, Grand Bahama could become a key incubator of innovative industries such as: maritime biotechnology; sustainable aquaculture; clean energy; ocean data and monitoring; clean shipping and carbonization; and the circular economy which focuses on reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and managing pollution, just to name a few”.

Blue Action Lab

Marine research at BAL
ACUA Ocean, an autonomous surface vessel for ocean data collection. Photo Blue Action Lab

He points to the Blue Action Lab (BAL), which he founded in Freeport. It is, said Hayward, “dedicated to equipping young Bahamians with the skills needed to thrive in the emerging green and blue economies while at the same time helping secure a climate resilient future by attracting the latest climate innovations and companies to The Bahamas”.

The Blue Action Accelerator, BAL’s funding programme, has a $10m portfolio of projects including regenerating biopolymers from seaweed into plastic-free leathers, JEEVAN — a CO2 removal technology 3-5x better than those mainstreamed today, a multi-disciplinary coastal ecosystem accounting technique, ocean data collection with ACUA Ocean — cutting-edge autonomous surface vessels “enabling advancements for offshore wind energy farms, blue carbon monitoring, research & verification, and marine protected area and exclusive economic zone monitoring & defense”, and AtmoCooling, patented large scale evaporative cooling. Scalable and versatile, this innovative solution is designed to mitigate climate impacts: “AtmoCooling transforms coastal deserts into thriving hubs of agriculture, clean energy, and climate resilience” decarbonization of the growing desalination industry, production of industrial materials, and profitable atmospheric CO2 by valorizing desalination brine. Each project receives a $150,000 start-up investment and six months of support from industry experts.

Devastation and opportunity

Hayward argues that apart from Dorian’s devastation, “at the same time, an abundance of cutting-edge career opportunities aimed at helping coastal communities defend against climate threats are just waiting to be claimed.”

Dorian
Dorian makes landfall. An infrared view.

“This partnership will allow Bahamians to take full advantage of a virtually untapped reservoir of employment possibilities. We want to create a whole new cadre of skilled local professionals and place them at the forefront of an emerging new sector that is likely to become one of the most important economic engines of the global economy in coming decades. This will not just accelerate the climate solutions that The Bahamas needs most, it will also establish the country as global leader in this sphere.”

On 4 April Inti Corporation of Bahamas announced that the first phase of its $15m Lucayan solar power project will be commissioned by the end of the month, one of two large solar farms to feed the energy sector with up to 9 megawatts of power. Inti last year became the first company in the Bahamas to sign on to the United Nations Women’s Empowerment Principles. Company president Owen Bethel says: “When you see the disparity in pay scales, even today, and how little that has changed in more than 20 years despite all the talk about equality, it is very troubling.” But he emphasized it is also “is the right thing to do” in face of gender inequalities and the “feminization of poverty”. Bethel described his company’s second motive as more selfish: “We recognize that in terms of the success of any venture, you want to draw the best from the widest skilled labour pool. We want to identify women engineers, designers, administrators and construction workers and encourage more women to enter the solar space as sustainability, especially in the face of climate change, becomes a greater priority for all.”

70 percent of the solar plant’s design and engineering is currently being led by women, according to Lucayas Solar Power Chief Executive Officer Jorge Marquez. Learning lessons from Hurricane Dorian and previous storms, he said the company will be using equipment and materials developed for extreme weather conditions, including solar panels 67% more resistant to winds than standard fittings.

Across the whole of the Bahamas, the Inter-American Development Bank has extended a $200m line of credit to the government to help micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in the ‘blue economy’ (marine-focused sustainabiity projects). The blue economy is estimated to account for over one-fifth of the nation’s GDP and include many women-run enterprises in low-profit markets.

Training hub for environmental scientists + research centre

UBN before Dorian
UB North before Dorian. Its facilities are now in the centre of town.

Last year, BAL signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the University of The Bahamas that will see the UB northern campus in Grand Bahama become a hub for training and mentorship of environmental and marine scientists, as well as an innovative research centre for supporting the blue economy.

The Charles Hayward Foundation has announced funding for the first-ever Bahamian partnership with the Chevening Scholarship program, allowing outstanding Bahamian students to pursue fully-funded master’s degree studies at accredited universities in the UK, in fields such as ecological/sustainable development, oceanography, marine biology and natural resource management.

Coral Vita
Exploring marine life at Coral Vita.

Coral Vita in Freeport is still going strong with its innovative way of growing corals up to 50 times faster than normal as well as boosting their resilience against warmer and more acidic oceans. The project now also has a farm in Dubai.

healthy reef example
Education and entertainment. Photo: Nikki Meith

On 5 April BAL unveiled a new hub for biodiversity restoration, 25-acre( 0.1km2) Conservation Cove. It will focus initially on bolstering the local blue economy by safeguarding and rejuvenating vital marine and coastal resources such as mangrove forests, coral reef systems, and the conch fishery. “The goal is to bridge local and international conservation endeavors with entrepreneurs, innovators, scientists, and community organizations to devise solutions that offer immediate benefits to The Bahamas and hold global relevance,” reported the local Eyewitness News.

“Conservation Cove is supporting conch and coral aquaculture and a mangrove nursery to repair the bleached reefs, declining conch fishery, and Dorian-destroyed mangroves,” Hayward explaned. “The long-term objective is to develop widely applicable solutions for vulnerable coastal nations while ensuring that Bahamians are equipped to capitalize on this promising new sector of our economy.”

The Cove plans to evolve into a tropical aquaculture park, an aquarium, a research and education hub, co-working spaces, and a hospitality centre.

Entrepreneurial mecca beckons

Freeport from the air
Freeport from the air, with its airport and Rand Nature Centre

Hayward told the 25th Annual Grand Bahama Business Outlook in February: “Grand Bahama can become a world-class business center, startup hub, digital and digitization laboratory, remote work destination for those in cutting-edge industries — an entrepreneurial mecca unrivalled in the region, and an innovation destination.”

The government’s Empower Grand Bahama programme in December 2023 awarded 132 small business owners and entrepreneurs in the orange economy or what is commonly called the creative industry grants of up to $5K to develop and diversify their tourism products and services.

Entrepreneurs in the Downtown Farmers Market and the newly renovated Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) Arts and Craft Centre have received financial help through the programme. Grant recipients included Clear View Tours Open Air Trams, a gully wash (Bahamian drink) bar Good Gully Wow, and business giving visitors an artistic painting experience.

The Ministry of Tourism, Investment and Aviation received over 500 applicants from artisans, tour operators, other business people, and food and drink vendors, an indication of the eagerness of local people to get the economy moving again.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) announced on 4 April 2024 that it had approved a $60m line of credit for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) aiming to foster sustainable development within the ‘blue economy’, estimated to account for over one-fifth of the nation’s GDP. The blue economy, IDB explains, “is a coordinated approach to climate change and climate risk solutions, environmental sustainability, and economic growth, by strengthening oceanic ecosystems and optimizing the use of marine resources.” IDB committed $200m of overall support in 2022. The blue economy contributes 50% of GDP if indirect impacts are included, 54% of wages and 73% of employment. MSMEs account for 98% of the country’s businesses and some 249 in the blue economy, employing 1,666 workers, particularly women-led firms working in small-profit markets. However, the $60m Conditional Credit Line will focus on 120 MSMEs on the so-called Family Islands outside Grand Bahama and New Providence. It will also provide 160 scholarships for science degrees and 120 scholarships for specialized training to those interested in becoming tour guides. In addition, the new program will supports to protect the marine environment and especially the approximately 25,000 people who live on Andros and Grand Bahama’s associated island of Abaco.

Cloud computing, cyber security and mobile apps training — with jobs

TechEddge, with Derek Newbold and GBPA President Ian Rolle at the centre.

In a separate development, the port authority launched a programme in September 2023 to develop Freeport into a technology and innovation hub, with an eye on the U.S.

At the Tech Edge launch, the GBPA announced technical training and employment placement for 50 Bahamians with Quess – India’s leading business services provider –and the University of the Bahamas North in Freeport, focusing on cloud computing, cyber security and mobile app development.

Rolle said he expects the project will significantly influence the employment situation in Grand Bahama, particularly in the tech realm. “What would probably happen after being involved in the training process is that we will have a number of entrepreneurs arise out of this programme,” he said. “This is very unique to the Bahamas in that this programme we train you and we place you.”

The company provided training and promised to place successful candidates with job opportunities either locally, with Quess Corp, or with one of their 3,000 clients worldwide.

IBS

Dr Donovan Moxey, CEO of Integrated Business Solutions International, the consultant for the project, said the Commercial Enterprises Act allows investments in tech-based companies to come to the Bahamas and quickly set up their operations.

It is also planned to create a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Professional Database to attract Bahamian students and professionals working abroad to come back the tech sector at home.

On 1 March the University of the Bahamas in the capital Nassau graduated the first 27 students in its Data Analytics Career Accelerator Program, a collaboration subsidized by Smarter Bahamas, which works with leading employers across The Bahamas.

Welcome the SandDollar, fibre optics and electric vehicles

The Bahamas is carefully promoting its own digital currency, the SandDollar, designed particularly to facilitate secure bill-settling and currency transactions on the 30 inhabited islands that have too little business to interest commercial banks among the Commonwealth’s 3,000 islands and cays (pronounced keys). The Central Bank says use of SandDollars in transactions doubled over the year, and digital wallets increased by 20%, though still recording only $1.7m in circulation as yet. To boost SandDollar us it is making a targeted giveaway of $1m to early adopters.

Further boosting Grand Bahamas tech profile to investors and businesses, the communications provider BTC announced in December that it had achieved 90% fibre connectivity, making it the national leader in this technology. It plans to decommission its copper network in the first half of 2024. BTC announced more fibre activation in April to make Freeport the country’s first “smart city”, offering 1 gig fibre connectivity as well as symmetrical upload and download speeds, designed to “stimulate growth within the orange economy”.

EV at Grand Bahama Business Outlook
Electric Vehicle at the Grand Bahama Business Outlook.

Electric vehicles might seem a no-question option on the Bahamian islands. But that development project is still waiting for economic recovery in other sectors. The main Bahamian island, New Providence, with over two-thirds of the total population, only has some 500 EVs. Grand Bahama itself has no more than 30. Before Hurricane Dorian, Grand Bahama Power Company (GBPC) had 16 EVs but they were flooded in the storm and it still has to rebuild the fleet.

The nation’s main electric vehicle provider turned up in February for the 25th Grand Bahama Business Outlook in the hope of sparking more interest in this form of transport, pointing out that drivers save $4 a gallon on gas by driving electric, as well as on maintenance. The world’s top EV, the Chinese-owned Build Your Dreams (BYD), is also a favourite in The Bahamas. “They overtook Tesla last year as the biggest selling manufacturer of the EV,” said John Farmer, Executive Sales Executive of Easy Car Sales, the only electric car dealership in the country. But the island still needs vehicle charging points.

Waiting for key developments

Grand Lucayan
The Grand Lucayan, once the glory of Freeport’s hotel scene

Grand Bahamians are even more anxious to see their most luxurious hotel in the resort region sold by the Government after 8 years closure due to an earlier hurricane. The Government bought the Grand Lucayan and Memories Resort from Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa in 2018. A planned sale fell through in November 2022, and the Royal Caribbean deal collapsed when the government halted negotiations in December 2023 (see above).

In one major sign of hope, the Prime Minister Philip Davis said in January there are a number of interested investors and he thinks a sale will go through to unspecified purchasers this year.

As of now the island only has some 1,500 hotel rooms available for rent. The Grand Lucayan is estimated to cost the government up to $1.5m a month to maintain. It still rents out suites at the associated Lighthouse Pointe but that’s a long way from meeting the demand and several residential communities are experimenting with AirBNB rentals and the like to open up the market.

Freeport’s inventor: Wallace Groves

Hawksbill signing
Wallace Groves, seated left, at the all-important 1955 signing of the Hawksbill Agreement for Grand Bahama. Photo Grand Bahama Museum

The island’s major settlement, Freeport, was virtually the invention of Wallace Groves, “a prominent financier and fraudster”, according to wikipedia.

Groves, born on 20 March 1901, took over the lumber business at Pine Ridge in 1946, and built a substantial business selling mine shafts to the U.K. and Germany until the exhaustion of its stands of Bahamian pine (straight trunks with leaves bunched at the top of the high trees, making them fire resistant).

But Groves then had his big idea for making Grand Bahama into the hope for the Commonwealth: make Grand Bahama the industrial powerhouse for the nation under an agreement with the malleable colonial government in Nassau to give him extensive control over a large part of the island (660km2) as the Grand Bahama Port Authority in 1955.

In turn he pledged to develop the region and arranged with associates to build a deep-water harbour that became a key stopover and maintenance facility for cruise ships and 100,000+tonne ships that needed to offload their cargoes onto smaller boats to deliver goods to the U.S. Eastern seabord below Baltimore.

As a result, Pine Ridge lumber camp became Freeport and expanded fivefold from its 8,000 1945 inhabitants. Under the deal and its successor agreements, the GBPA need pay no taxes until 2054.

Groves’ multiple developments with his Canadian wife Georgette included the Garden of the Groves nature reserve (site of the original Grand Bahama Museum), Mary Star of the Seas Catholic Church and high school. He also masterminded the opening of the main Lucaya hotel and a casino. It brought prosperity to Freeport and the sobriquet of “the Monaco of the Caribbean” until allegations of Mafia connections and illegalities led the government to take action.

Hurricane history…

Xanadu terrain
Xanadu’s terrain under negotiation post Dorian

Since storms were first recorded in 1851, however, two Category 5 hurricanes and seven Category 4 hurricanes have struck the Bahamas, and the island itself (LINK).

In September 2004 Hurricane Jeanne severely damaged over 70% of the homes in the working class community of Eight Mile Rock. A year later Hurricane Wilma destroyed 200 homes and left 1,500 people homeless. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew caused severe damage to 95% of the homes in Eight Mile Rock and nearby Holmes Rock.

Like Matthew, Dorian in 2019 settled on the island instead of moving immediately on — and flooded half the island. Key areas like the hospital and airport were contaminated with sewage. An estimated 50% of the homes in Grand Bahama and neighbouring Abaco were damaged or destroyed in the country’s worst recorded natural disaster.

The coming six months from June could be difficult, however. The 2024 projections for the Atlantic forecast the highest number of hurricanes since Colorado State University started its assessments in 1995:  23 named storms, 11 hurricanes and five major hurricanes in an “extremely active” season, while the average is 14 storms and seven hurricanes.

…plus climate change

Climate change and its associated sea-level rise remains a major existential threat: the island’s highest point is only 8m above sea level, and Prime Minister Philip Davis, visiting his home island a few years ago, pointed out that places he walked on sand in Grand Bahama as a child were now under water.

…and many failed projects…

International Bazaar
Hong Kong West, the International Bazaar.

Over the years Grand Bahama has also seen a number of ambitious economic projects that failed to live up to their promise.

The British entrepreneur Billy Butlin tried to build a luxury Vacation Village at West End with accommodation for 2,000 vacationers in the years after World War II. It opened, partially complete, in 1949 but collapsed as a project in 1950 when American tourists shunned his holiday camp system and investors withdrew their support.

In 1963 Chinese media announced plans to make Grand Bahama “HongKong West” with the construction of the now derelict International Bazaar by the architect who later designed Disney’s Epcot.

A later developer promoted the island unsuccessfully as “the New World Riviera“.

A ‘go-broke’ place

A critical Bahamian website described this period of developing luxury accommodation and gambling casinos as “From Gangsters To Bankruptcy“. The Grand Bahama museum’s excellent and thorough website cover this same period in depth under the title “Wallace Groves’ Caribbean Adventure”.

It quotes Wallace Groves’ wife as noting of these glory years: “Suddenly, the city was viewed as a get rich quick place, rather than a ‘go broke place’ as had been thought by many islanders in past years… It was considered a vacationer’s and a businessman’s utopia,” Georgette recorded.

But by 1975 the Lucayan Beach Hotel went into receivership when it lost revenue from the gambling casino and remained closed for a year until the Government took it over.

Groves’ freeport idea became popular elsewhere in the 1990s. “As in other matters, Groves was a visionary seeing ahead of his time,” the Grand Bahama Museum suggests.

The Grand Lucayan Centre and a homage to its native inhabitants . Photo: Nikki Meith

…yet Groves was not interested in holidaymakers

Ironically, though, Groves, who died in Miami of a stroke in 1988, “was not interested in the tourist trade,” according to the country’s tourism guru Stafford Sands. Sands said: “He did not consider it stable.”

As an attraction to investors today, the GBPA can now boast of having won certification from the ISO (International Organization for Standardization) for its Buîlding and Development Services. This means it offers “best-in-class service”, the company said in its March 2024 announcement of the ISO 9001 quality management certification.

Freeport Harbour: how much cash flows to local businesses?

Even before climate change became an urgent global issue, many questioned the Bahamian emphasis on cruise ship tourism. The main tourism facilities are in the hands of foreign companies. The profits flow out of the country because the Bahamas has little to offer immediately to foreign direct investment into local businesses.

Today GB has a worldwide reputation among tourists

Paradise Cove
Paradise Cove offers swimming with turtles and a close-to-shore reef as well as “another day in paradise” . Photo: Nikki Meith

On the other hand, its facilities have earned it a worldwide reputation.

Luxury columnist puts Grand Bahama among the 17 top Caribbean islands for “a luxurious and expensive getaway“.

“From the moment you arrive, you’ll be surrounded by stunning views of the ocean and pristine beaches,” Suze Renner wrote on 18 February 2024. “Grand Bahama island is home to a number of upscale resorts, restaurants, and shopping centers, making it the perfect place to relax and enjoy the finer things in life. Particularly popular for family-friendly Caribbean vacations, Grand Bahama is known for its nature preserves such as Lucayan National Park. The Garden of the Groves is another popular attraction spread over 12 acres.”

Gold Rock Beach
No caption necessary.

The Lucayan National Park at Gold Rock Beach, 40km from Freeport, was recognized as one of the 25 top Caribbean natural attractions in the Caribbean Journal for 2024. Readers of USA Today in 2018, before Dorian, voted it the best Caribbean beach.

Ben's Cave
Ben’s Cave at the Gold Rock park leads to a series of cavernous tunnels underwater to the sea.

BahamasAir won the Caribbean’s Leading Airline award in the 2023 World Travel Awards. Ian Rolle of the GBPA points out that additional airlifts will bring more tourists to the island, notably via Bahamas Air and the Canada-based carrier Sunwing.

He notes that Grand Bahama offers over 40 excursions and over 120 restaurants and bars.

Rocky GBPA relations with Nassau

Yet relations between the GBPA and national government are going through a sticky patch. Latest reports say Nassau has given the Port Authority 30 days to pay $300m for “reimbursable expenses” since 2023. But the President of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce James Carey cited the amount and publicly urged both sides to get together: “I can’t understand why these parties are not speaking to each other directly. There is no room for personal feelings and that sort of thing; this is business.”

The quarrel continued in public during the first week of April. Davis accused the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) of failing to repay costs the Government had incurred in providing public services in Freeport, citing unspecified costs under a section of Freeport’s founding treaty.

‘Handcuffed’ by Nassau, and a failed purchase bid

On April 7 the GBPA countered that it had been “systematically handcuffed” by central government policies and legislation over decades. Its statement declared: “The Grand Bahama Port Authority does not agree that it owes the sum of $357 million as claimed by the Government of The Bahamas [for the last 5 fiscal years]. We reject and will robustly defend against this claim, which we firmly believe will be defeated.”

“This claim came on the heels of a recent proposal by the government to purchase the whole Port group (which owns the Port Authority) from its current shareholders at a considerable discount, a proposal that was carefully considered in good faith but ultimately declined,” the GBPA said. “Having been disappointed in its attempt to purchase the Port group outright, it appears the government is attempting to force its desired outcome by other means. Meanwhile, the Port Authority has been systematically handcuffed by central government policies and legislation over decades that prevent the Port Authority from being the one-stop-shop that the Hawksbill Creek Agreement intended and which other international ‘free port’ areas around the world enjoy. As a result, ease of doing business in the Port Area has been severely eroded, which has reduced its competitive advantage, and the continuing loss of opportunity for The Bahamas has been enormous.

The local Eyewitness News reported: “The GBPA [said] its shareholders have found it necessary to regularly subsidize the Port Authority’s management of the city from their own pockets, despite which the economy and standard of living in the Port Area remain better than the central government-managed areas of West End and East Grand Bahama.” It urged the central government to resolve the issue in good faith.

28 April deadline, ‘3-5 years arbitration’

Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell on 10 April raised the prospect of a takeover of Freeport governance from the GBPA by the Nassau government because of “extortionate” demands on foreign investors who have to “jump through hoops” with the Port Authority to reach government officials. The day before he argued on local television that GBPA was largely responsible for Freeport’s decline. “It was not the government who abandoned the airport. It was the Port Authority who allowed the hospital to deteriorate. It was the Port Authority who sold off essential assets of the port. It was the Port Authority who to this day have not cleared up the hurricane debris of 2019’s Hurricane Dorian. In each case the government has to step up to the plate to save the city of Freeport,” he complained. “How can the present directors argue that they have confidence in the city when they abandoned the airport, refuse to reinvest, allowed us to lose (U.S.) pre-clearance in Freeport and the government had to step in to rebuild the facility?”

The GBPA has until 28 April to respond to Nassau’s claim, he revealed. Failing agreement the dispute will go to arbitration, he said.

A prominent Grand Bahama attorney says this could take 3-5 years, deterring investors. He also complained that lack of investment and development beyond the port area was evidence of the government’s failure to deliver on its promises. Eyewitness News quoted Kirk Antoni as stating: “One thing the GBPA said that is true is that the government holds up more transactions than they approve. The ease of doing business does not exist anymore in Freeport. I can’t speak for Nassau. The only government department that works efficiently in Freeport is Road Traffic.”

Antoni denied any connection with the GBPA: “I have no connection with them and I have said on several occasions they need reform because they are just a bunch of cheque collectors.”

A Bahamian activist, Calvin Turnquest, Executive Director of The Council For Concerned Bahamians Abroad, was quoted in the media next day as calling for an end to the public arguments with the protest: “Finger pointing by grown folk is downright childish and embarrassing.”

One explorer in earlier centuries described the Bahamas as “the land of perpetual June” for its marvellous climate. Now Grand Bahama could claim to be its island of perpetual hope.

Freeport sunset
Freeport’s famous sunsets. Photo: Nikki Meith

Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Insights Magazine. A long-time journalist and foreign correspondent, he is based in Switzerland and the Bahamas with a strong interest in environmental and development issues.

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