An Open Letter to the Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas & The Principals of the Grand Bahama Port Authority
Dear Sirs/Madams, We write to you as a group of very concerned licensees of the Grand Bahama Port Authority, seeking to address the recent public statements concerning the Grand Bahama Port Authority, the Hawksbill Creek Agreement, the future of Freeport and that of Grand Bahama. Like all Grand Bahamians, we are passionate about its current economic state and its future. This is our home and, despite the challenges, we love Grand Bahama and know firsthand its immense potential and its woeful under- achievement. Our only motive is to see our island become the progressive second city it was meant to be, the one it was. This is something upon which we clearly agree.
However, we are deeply alarmed by recent comments made in Parliament by the Honorable Prime Minister and those made by the Honorable Minister of Foreign Affairs about unspecified “decisive action,” inferring changes to the governance model of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement Act, a statute not only enshrined by law but one which requires a 4/5 majority of licensees to change. We are also deeply concerned we are only hearing from the GBPA through press releases in response. To be clear, it is the thousands of licensees, their employees, their families and residents of Freeport that are most impacted by the protracted and unacceptable economic conditions on our island. It makes the lack of genuine engagement all the more alarming.
Despite the aggressive statements in Parliament, in the media and responding press releases – all of which have shared no plans nor details – we are unaware, to date, of any overtures by of our Government or the GPA to genuinely and substantively engage licensees on our future.
We believe in the Hawksbill Creek Agreement as designed and recognise the importance of this agreement, which is protected by law. While we understand that most Bahamians outside of Grand Bahama (and to be sure many in Freeport as well) do not understand this progressive agreement, its merits do not change nonetheless.
We are calling on both the GBPA and the Government’s to sincerely embrace the HCA and to work together to fulfil its objectives – objectives which have realized tremendous success in many jurisdictions elsewhere. It certainly needs updates and critical matters addressed. However, we can hardly measure its performance when obligations on both the part of the GBPA and of the Government have not been met. The HCA and Freeport are not an infringement on our sovereignty – rather, its potential and corresponding obligation of both the GBPA and Government to support realizing this potential only serves to be a pivotal force in our national best interests. We all know this.
We all remember, too well, the ‘heyday’ of Freeport and its growth under Wallace Groves from a barren pine forest into the Freeport Harbour and a functioning city. It is the only planned city and the only place in The Bahamas that presents an opportunity for mass growth, without a corresponding (and cost-prohibitive) demand on limited national resources.
We also remember when, under the direction of Edward St. George, Sir Jack and Sir Albert Miller, our island became the industrial capital of The Bahamas.
Most importantly, we recall the ease of doing business on the island, with licensing taking two weeks, once paperwork and financing were in place. Shortly thereafter, ground would be broken and, more importantly, buildings and businesses were actually built and opened. Per the provisions of the contractual HCA, the GBPA’s role was and remains approving investors and advising Government as a courtesy.
Government approval was and is not required. We have seen this eroded drastically since the death of Mr. St. George and the retirement of Sir Albert. What used to take 3-4 weeks, now takes 3-4 months, despite all the technological advances. We have seen the Government and bureaucratic overreach in matters that have, without exception, been struck down by the highest courts in our country. Yet, the erosion continues, the silence persisting for too long. At a time when we need the chokeholds removed, we are moving at a snail’s pace.
The devastation caused to Freeport and Grand Bahama by Hurricanes Floyd, Frances, Jean, Wilma, Matthew, and Dorian is something only Grand Bahamians have experienced. Yet, we continued to rebuild at tremendous cost to every licensee and stakeholder in Grand Bahama. And, as if Freeport had not suffered enough, the Global Recession of 2009 and the Covid 19 pandemic dealt further blows. No other island in our archipelago has faced these repeated hits – not one. Tourism was obliterated, our real property market plummeted, with prices plunging 40-50 percent (with upcoming legislation is likely to further depress ours and other islands’ prospects). Yet, again, we took to rebuilding and if it weren’t for foreign support, we would not have been able to do so. We cannot misrepresent our plight. To say that Government has “been supporting Grand Bahama and … carrying Freeport and the responsibilities of the GBPA for 10 years if not more…” does not reflect the facts of the support and contributions of the GBPA, of NGOs and that of The Government. In fact, it is Government that is responsible for the hospital, the airport, and the former Lucayan hotel. And, yet, now under multiple administrations, we have seen no revitalisation of these projects beyond ground-breakings and announcements.
The inflammatory remarks also do not account for Freeport’s contribution to the Public Treasury. Freeport has contributed in excess of $100 million dollars on an annual basis to the Public Treasury, through airport fees, hotel taxes, vat, customs duty, immigration fees, car license fees, NIB contributions, and more. These funds are not spent in Freeport to maintain our roads, city infrastructure or utilities. Further, we do not see evidence of a proportional reinvestment of these funds in the East or West of Grand Bahama, in disrepair and requiring NGO support and that of the GBPA as well. Newly constructed buildings like Eight Mile Rock’s Government Complex and Holmes’ Rock Junior High remain unopened, roads remain hazardous and it is evident all of Grand Bahama needs a revitalization.
We want to be very clear: we also firmly agree the status quo has long been unacceptable and we need transformative change with the
GBPA. It is painfully clear that, notwithstanding the multiple blows Freeport, the GBPA and Grand Bahama have experienced, the lack of leadership, vision and resources have stifled our city. Does the GBPA need a change in shareholding and management? We believe it must. And, the sooner, the better. Licensee representation was mandated by the HCA – and the lack thereof is just one of the commitments not realized by the GBPA. Yes, there must be change. There must be a clearly conveyed and supported vision with the requisite resources – both in terms of capital and expertise – to achieve that vision to develop Freeport to its full potential – for the sake of Grand Bahama and the wider Bahamas. We do not need rhetoric, press releases and posturing that is damaging, unprofessional and not what we expect from our Government nor the GBPA. The current lack of constructive dialogue and commitment to come to a resolution is reckless and unacceptable. We are calling for our Government, the Grand Bahama Port Authority and the licensees to meet outside of the public arena and resolve the ownership/management question. We want a capable and well-resourced GBPA, genuinely supported by our Government to welcome investors, cut the administrative stranglehold and rid of island of the shakedowns. We are calling on our Government and the GBPA to set an unprecedented example of what a stable, transparent adherence to the HCA can deliver for Freeport, for Grand Bahama and The Bahamas.