IF THERE is one thing that political parties within The Bahamas and any careful observer outside the country could agree on, it is that the island of Grand Bahama has gone from shining star with rising property values and lives filled with optimism to a giant question mark. What happened to this tourist mecca less than 100 miles from Miami with its once fancy hotels, modern marina, glittering casino, luxury shopping in an International Bazaar? Why are shops empty and boarded up? Why is unemployment so high (most recent report pegging it at about 13 per cent covered the period up to May when jobs were being added just before the 2017 election)? What happened to the Freeport and the Grand Bahama of a million dreams and millionaires putting their money behind those dreams to make them come true?
We can sum up what happened in a way that may not be popular; more importantly, we believe the greater need is for a vision for Grand Bahama that is radically different from the one its founders built it on and we believe it lies in the four t’s – technology, training, treatment and transport.
So what did happen? Some analysts would like us to point fingers and say that the Grand Bahama Port Authority put a stranglehold on every business that ever wanted to operate in the duty free zone, imposing outlandish fees and conditions that would allow only very well capitalised companies to be licensed, suffocating the organic life out of the economy. Blaming the woes of Grand Bahama on a few well-to-do families that benefitted financially is easy just as it is always easiest to blame bad times on someone else. We believe that the real problem goes deeper than that and some parts of the GBPA could actually serve as a model for efficient governance. Streets are clean, power, though expensive, rarely goes out, the landfill is so pristine that students on a Save The Bays field trip were able to eat lunch there.
The real problem of what caused Freeport’s woes is the basis on which Freeport was created and the failure to recognise that the vision of then does not work in the world of today. It was an artificial concept. Build a town on a flat piece of paradise, put in terrific golf courses, a fancy casino, lay out streets in an American-style grid, lure buyers mostly from the UK through paid trips and futures built on fantasy and success would follow. In the 1960s, the vision worked. With Sir Stafford Sands at the helm of tourism and the original investors of Freeport, including Wallace Groves steering the ship, Freeport, a flat human experiment lacking the mature trees, vivid flora and fauna and undulating topography of other islands, flourished.
But half a century later, that vision is out of touch with reality. Today, with much of the ownership of the resources and infrastructure in the hands of Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, there must be a new vision for Grand Bahama. Whether the government buys or facilitates and expedites the sale of the Grand Lucayan is only a fraction of the bigger picture. Sure, its re-opening would create immediate employment and jobs look good for any government. But in fact the opening of one hotel property is little more than the traditional bandage on cancer treatment.
The real future for Freeport and, indeed, for Grand Bahama is in distinguishing itself as the trade and technology capital of the Western Hemisphere. That vision has two subsets. The first is medical, the second is sports training.
Much of the infrastructure is already in place. The Freeport Container Port is already the number one transshipment facility in the region. The Grand Bahama Shipyard is the giant few outside Grand Bahama realise is in our midst. We have never visited the shipyard but following its work on its website is an amazing journey. So far this year, they have drydocked 30 ships, far exceeding their expectations. They’ve re-made structural changes to the interiors of several of Carnival’s ships, added Water Works, overhauled Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas, installed sea chests to support sophisticated scrubber systems now required on commercial vessels to limit air pollution and are preparing for the next wave of sulfur emission restrictions on thousands of commercial vessels that take effect by 2020.
In the immediate future lies the Sea Air Business Centre, a partnership between Hutchison Ports and the Grand Bahama Port Authority. The 741-acre park located between the container port and the airport will house manufacturing and distribution facilities and could serve as a technology and research hub. At the same time, the training at the LJM Maritime Academy in Nassau is preparing cadets for a future in the marine industry, one of the fastest growing segments of the global economy with virtually nothing to slow it down.
Freeport’s past is not its future. As a tourist destination, we urge political and private parties to consider its highest and best use – not as sun, sea, sand but redefined, reshaped and re-branded with a dual purpose do-over. One leg is treatment. That includes medical research, senior assisted living, addiction rehabilitation and stem cell research and therapy. The other leg is as a sports training capital attracting golf, hockey, tennis and Spring training teams as well as high school sports teams for major events. In sports and in medicine, Grand Bahama is ideally located, easily accessible and has potential that will explode when unleashed through economic zones and tax incentives.
The other two t’s, transport and technology, have already shown they can work. Four t-s create an intersection. Grand Bahama is at that crossroads and simply needs to spread its wings in those desirable directions.
The best is yet to come for the Second City and its surrounds. Grand Bahama just has to decide what it wants to be and not try to be what others are, but what it is uniquely positioned to be.