By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
TOWN Centre Mall will be rented at a cost of around $900,000 per year to house the General Post Office, Transport and Local Government Minister Renward Wells revealed yesterday.
He explained the government intended to rent 75,000 square feet of space in the mall at a cost of $12 per square foot, which works out to be around $4.5m over the five-year life span of the lease.
Initially the government planned to rent 69,875 square feet, but Mr Wells said some additional space would be needed for partnerships with FedEx for international package delivery and DigiPrint for the production of web-based documents used by legal and accounting firms to increase profitability of the General Post Office.
Parliament began debate yesterday on the resolution to rent the mall, which is partly owned by Cabinet minister Brent Symonette.
The owners, Mr Wells said, are fully responsible for all of the renovation of the fixed assets including electrical, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, dry wall and plumbing at a cost of around $3.5m.
He said it is hoped the needed works would be completed this year and staff can move in about a week before Christmas. A timeline of December 15 was first set, but he said because debate on the resolution was delayed, an extra week would be needed.
However, before debate began in the lower chamber yesterday, Official Opposition Leader Philip "Brave" Davis said if a member of the House of Assembly was interested in a government contract, he was required to vacate his seat.
He told members Mr Symonette's disclosure of interest in a contract did not absolve him from vacating his seat. He noted that what would absolve him from doing so would be that the House exempts him from this act.
Mr Davis pointed to Article F (I) of the Constitution, which says the House has to come to the conclusion that it is just for a member to engage in a contract, adding the House would have to say Mr Symonette is exempted.
Following this, Mr Symonette stood and declared his interests in Blue Hill Road Shopping Centres Limited and BHRSC Holding Limited, the latter holding the majority of shares in Town Centre Mall.
Mr Wells, who is leader of government business, then announced Mr Symonette had been exempt from vacating his seat, at which time the St Anne's MP left the floor to sit among those in the gallery as a vote was taken on the approval of his exemption.
Mr Davis, Exumas and Ragged Island MP Chester Cooper along with Englerston MP Glenys Hanna Martin all stood opposed to move.
Mr Symonette then returned to the floor.
Addressing the state of General Post Office for the last three years, Mr Wells told the House it was indefensible and unacceptable to allow the status quo to continue. He said millions were spent on various "patchworks" so the GPO could "limp along".
"After all of the patchwork and the continued need for more patchwork and maintenance work it was not until 2016, four years into the then PLP administration that a definitive decision was taken to have the staff of the last government agencies in the building relocated from East Hill Street," Mr Wells said.
"It is also noteworthy that we are now in 2018 and even before 17 months into this FNM administration we too have taken a decisive decision to immediately remove the post office staff from the building on East Hill Street and God willing ahead of Christmas Day, before the end of the year we will do just that."
Mr Wells pointed to several buildings explored by the former Christie administration as alternative sites for the post office relocation.
At least eight buildings were considering, including the Town Centre Mall complex on Baillou Hill Road.
As conditions at the GPO continued to worsen in 2016, Mr Wells said the former Cabinet agreed in principle to the relocation of the GPO to Town Centre Mall subject to a team comprising the former deputy prime minister, Mr Davis; the former minister of transport, Glenys Hanna Martin; and former Cabinet ministers Shane Gibson and Michael Halkitis, to verify the availability of the purchase of the Town Centre Mall or another location which could readily accommodate the relocation of the post office.
Cabinet further agreed to continue negations with the management of the mall with a view to government undertaking the necessary renovations at the site, Mr Wells said.
"The mall was proposed at one point in time to be the site of the family courts in 2012 by the former administration and that the mall has served as a centre for NIB verification and voter registration over the last five years. The last administration having abandoned the move to the Town Centre Mall then through the Ministry of Finance entered into discussions with the owners of the Independence Shopping Centre.
"The government eventually arrived at an agreement with the owners to purchase the complex at a cost not to exceed $4m, the renovations requiring an additional $4m to $5m. Meanwhile the proposed renovations for the Town Centre Mall at the time was estimated between $2.5 and $5m.
"Two million down payment was made to the owners of the Independence Shopping Plaza and $1m to a selected contractor, $600,000 having been spent to date for works done at the site. So as it stands now the government of the Bahamas invested some $3.6m in that Independence Shopping Centre."
Fast forward to this year, Mr Wells said the government stepped away its plan to move the post office to the Phil's Food Services building due to "vandalism".
"I am advised that the renovations for Phil's Food Services building was also expected to cost $4m.
"I am further advised that though and once the government took possession of the building it was discovered that the building was stripped of electrical wiring, plumbing and air conditioning components that were intended to be part and parcel of the new renovations.
"This act of vandalism greatly increased the construction cost and the construction timeline. From the time this administration signaled that we were interested in Phil's and announced it to the public at the time that we compulsorily acquired the building when we said we were interest in the building and inspected the building it was in one state - it had the air-conditioning unit, it had the electrical wiring. Based on the Ministry of Works projection, a certain cost would have been required to make that building functional. When we finally acquired the building to our surprise and dismay what we left was not what we got," Mr Wells revealed.
By the end of the lease term, the government intends to build a new structure to house the General Post Office.