By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A LEADING Grand Bahama-based food retailer yesterday said its sales were up 21-22 per cent for 2012 to-date, but warned that "no one can do any business here" given the island's relatively high electricity costs.
Jeff Butler, head of Butler's Food World, said his top-line had received a boost - as had that of competitors - from the closure of City Markets' two locations in Freeport, as he confirmed to Tribune Business he had been approached about taking over the location being vacated by another rival, Savemore.
Explaining that no negotiations over a potential move had started, and that he was "in a pretty good location right now", Mr Butler added that "nothing will happen" for Freeport and Grand Bahama's economy until the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) was sold to new investors and power costs addressed.
"I got a phone call and I'd listen to any proposal," Mr Butler told Tribune Business about how he was contacted over Savemore's impending exit. "I got a phone call from someone asking if I'd be interested in the property, but that's it.
"I don't know what Savemore's doing, whether they're taking out the last of their equipment. I don't know what we're looking at, and I'm in a pretty good location right now."
Savemore has confirmed it is closing down within the next two weeks, potentially putting up to 41 Bahamians out of work. It has blamed the move on a variety of factors, including relatively high power costs, Price Control regulations and large sums owed by the Department of Social Services for food stamps.
Observers, though, suggest other factors are likely to be Freeport's saturated, over-retailed food retail market, and the fact that Savemore was in close proximity to a rival, Sawyer's Fresh Market.
"The biggest problem with anything on Grand Bahama is the Grand Bahama Power Company," Mr Butler told Tribune Business. "No one can do any business here as long as they charge what they do. There'll be no foreign investment, no local investment, and people like Savemore will be going out of business one after the other."
The Butler's Food World principal said the issue was "not just the rate", which has stayed around $0.40 per kilowatt hour (KwH), but the "usage".
Adding that his company's energy costs were "probably double what they should be", Mr Butler said: "We're waiting to see if the new government has any solutions.
"Unless the Port Authority is sold, and the Power Company falls into line, nothing will happen. Grand Bahama won't expand."
Pointing out that the Grand Bahama Power Company's rates were approved by the Port Authority, Mr Butler added that many businesses had seen their power bills "double" despite the KwH price staying constant - hence his concerns over the usage.
As for Butler's Food World, he told Tribune Business that it had "picked up a tremendous amount of business" from the local Bahamian market. It now employed 91 persons and, between that and his Butler's Specialty Foods operation, Mr Butler said he had hired some 125-130 Bahamians.
"We're quite pleased with our stores," he said. "As a ball park figure, I'd say sales are up 21-22 per cent. When City Markets closed we picked up quite a bit of that, and I'd imagine we'd pick up something from Savemore's closure," he told Tribune Business.
"Solomon's will pick something up, and Sawyer's will do so as well. In this market, we just need to increase the population. If we doubled the population in Freeport, Grand Bahama would be fine.
"We just need more manufacturing, more business here, and then we can afford these ridiculous rates the Power Company charges and pay the Port's fees. It's a matter of volume."
Despite their recent differences over parking for Butler's Food World, Mr Butler said he was willing to work with his landlord, ex-Port Authority chairman Hannes Babak, to get his retail Mall "open and get Bahamians employed. I support that 100 per cent".