POWERFUL images of hundreds of hopefuls lined up for a government-led job fair in Grand Bahama over the weekend delivered an unmistakable message. Grand Bahama is hurting. A once-thriving tourism-based economy is spiralling downward while the industrial component, largely owned by foreign interests, provides a semi-steadying base, deflecting from the general crumbling of much that made Grand Bahama a star in a 60s and 70s galaxy.
With fewer hotel rooms available and few cruise ship calls, new job openings are scarce and hard fought-for. Many homeowners are struggling, living in fear of foreclosure. Retail, transportation providers, attractions are all feeling the brunt. A large shipyard, a locally owned brewery, medical practices, government offices, an upscale boutique hotel and some rentals have become the economic stalwarts.
The full impact of Grand Bahama’s troubled economy was visible in the faces of those who waited up to six hours in the broiling sun for a chance to get a job. It is little wonder the government has made “fixing” Grand Bahama a top priority.
But in its rush to make Grand Bahama whole and vibrant again, government must be careful. Major announcements of multi-million or billion dollar deals promising hundreds of jobs may sound like manna from heaven. Excitement over a proposed oil refinery was so great the first press release sent out by Bahamas Information Services following last week’s announcement - that a Heads of Agreement would be signed with Oban Energies in days - called it a $400 billion dollar deal. That was later corrected to $4 billion and later increased to $5.5 billion as if the news of a shot in the arm of Grand Bahama’s sagging economy was enough to throw everything into a tailspin.
The question of whether or not an oil refinery with all the inherent risks is a good plan for Grand Bahama is a legitimate one though not what we believe needs to be addressed with utmost priority.
Our fear for Grand Bahama is that once again we are doing exactly what we have always done and if we do we will get the same results we always got. What we have always done and are about to do again is to sit back awaiting a money-laden saviour to come strolling through the door with a business plan, and wishfully enough funds and integrity, to complete whatever they say they plan to do. Those plans come with our agreeing to concessions to make their investment more attractive though the lion’s share of the returns they earn will be shipped back to wherever they came from.
The real solution does not lie in searching for the investor who comes strolling through the door with mega plans, bearing gifts of gilded promises known as jobs. The real solution is using imagination and innovation to create a vision for Grand Bahama that builds on what makes that island in the northern Bahamas unique and what will sustain it long-term with as little harmful impact on the environment as possible. Then the investor may be local or foreign but the size of the project will be appropriate, and could be as small as a boutique hotel or as large as a regional hospitality training centre.
The long-term potential of Grand Bahama lies in areas including medical and sports tourism, in digital currency services and e-commerce development, in shipbuilding and in the green, blue and brown economies. Brown, for anyone not familiar, is the relatively new term for salvaging abandoned buildings and converting the formerly used into the presently functional and attractive.
In sports tourism alone, Grand Bahama could find its footing and excel. Flat terrain makes it ideal for a number of related activities, including spring training grounds for pro baseball and/or year-round training for swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and basketball teams and individuals. Its four golf courses could be upgraded to become outstanding world-renowned courses with new clubhouses and imaginative tournaments. Imagine a tennis academy or combination tennis, golf and academics. Each of those activities requires housing and ancillary services from food to medical attention.
Grand Bahama’s panacea does not lie in a pre-packaged deal wrapped in ribbons of jobs.
It lies in long-term solutions that only imagination and innovation can create, develop and sell, solutions that begin by looking at the island’s USP, Unique Selling Point. Grand Bahama has several – its proximity to the US, its strong infrastructure, its deep water harbour, its 80 miles of coastline and waters, its affordable housing thanks in large part to a flat economy that has kept prices relatively low.
Grand Bahama also has an excellent reputation in education.
These are the kind of areas our leaders should be looking at to carve out the kind of living community that is not dependent on players so large they can make or break the economy, running the risk of sweeping in on a wave of promises and departing in the dead of night, leaving a trail of heartbreak and disappointment.
So long as imagination is alive, Grand Bahama has a very great chance to live up to its name.