By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister yesterday pledged that Harbour Island’s infrastructure needs will be neglected no longer even after a local “backlash” forced the government to suspend a $5m dock upgrade.
Desmond Bannister, minister of works, acknowledged to Tribune Business that the popular tourist destination’s utilities, roads and other public infrastructure may not have received sufficient attention in the past following the 72-hour power blackout suffered over the Christmas holiday.
Suggesting that the Minnis administration had been well aware of the need for critical improvements, he revealed that it had been forced to place a signed contract to overhaul Harbour Island’s main dock on hold after Briland residents called for the facility to be relocated.
But, with the proposed new location fraught with “environmental sensitivities”, Mr Bannister said the Government had effectively been forced to put the project on hold until the necessary studies were conducted. As a result, the $5m was reallocated to upgrading dock facilities in south Eleuthera.
Responding to Brilander charges that the Government has ignored their escalating infrastructure needs, and that Harbour Island sees little of the major tax contributions it makes to the Public Treasury, Mr Bannister said: “That may have been the case in the past; that will not be the case as we move on.
“The Government has plans to invest almost $5m in upgrading the dock and infrastructure there. Last year we were forced to suspend that project even when it was ready to go and we had signed the contract.
“The feedback was just not favourable; that the dock was wanted in another location,” the minister continued. “That location is environmentally sensitive, and we’re going to have to do any number of studies. I don’t know how soon that is going to happen. We had moved that $5m in funding to upgrade the docks in south Eleuthera.
“Our concern was that we had a commercial dock that is out-of-date, out-of-touch and out of time. It continues to have challenges whenever a big boat comes in. Our intent was to upgrade it, and we had to stop and reconsider it. As a government we don’t want to do anything where we have a backlash. We want to do projects that are fully supported.
“I anticipate we will canvass the community in upcoming years and see where we get support in terms of infrastructure projects. It will get the investment. Certainly for government infrastructure requirements, for roads and power, and for any challenges they face in Harbour Island. It is a very unique community.”
Mr Bannister said Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) “has a plan to increase the generation capacity to Harbour Island”, although that may currently be of little comfort to Briland resorts, businesses and residents following one of the destination’s longest ever total blackouts that occurred at the worst possible time - right through the Christmas holiday and start of the peak winter tourism season.
“Harbour Island has grown tremendously, and the Government has approved a new project there,” the minister added, seemingly referring to the controversial development by 4M Harbour Island Ltd. “The capacity required for Harbour Island has increased, and we have to increase the capacity to serve it.
“I know the whole idea behind BPL seeking to go out with renewable energy throughout Eleuthera was to meet the needs of Eleuthera and Harbour Island. There is a huge need, and what is traditionally there is not fit for purpose. It’s [Harbour Island] become a commercial centre, has a number of resorts and continues to grow even though its footprint is so small.”
James Malcolm, a Harbour Island-based realtor with Damianos Sotheby’s International Realty, and whose family have been Briland natives for 72 years, told Tribune Business “there’s absolutely no excuse” for the Government’s chronic lack of infrastructure investment given how much the location contributes annually in taxes to the Public Treasury.
“Successive governments have never understood Harbour Island and the huge economic impact it has for the Public Treasury,” Mr Malcolm told Tribune Business. “There’s never been a return on investment despite the incredible amount of money going into the Treasury, whether it’s VAT, Stamp Duty or real property tax on foreign-owned properties.
“Government has never put it back into infrastructure. We should have the best roads, fantastic-tasting water and reliable power supply. My family has been on this island for 72 years, and there’s absolutely no excuse for it. My family has been in the hospitality business and we speak from experience.
“We don’t have adequate roads, we don’t have adequate water, and we don’t have adequate power. There’s absolutely no excuse for it.”
Describing the 72-hour power outage, which began last Monday evening and lasted through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as “dreadfully embarrassing”, Mr Malcolm said it meant that few locals and visitors were out celebrating the festive season - an occurrence that “affected the economy without a doubt”.
Stand-by generators, meant to run for six to eight hours, were being asked to operate 24/7 and had to be shut down for periods to give them a rest, he recalled. The loss of electricity also meant Cable Bahamas’ service was knocked out, the water supply “lost its prime” and showers became impossible, while ATMs and electronic payment transactions were rendered inoperable.
Mr Malcolm, who spoke to Tribune Business on Friday, said despite BPL restoring supply there were still challenges with power quality. He revealed that, at a Harbour Island home he manages, the voltage being supplied by BPL was insufficient to run both the commercial AC system and the swimming pool’s water heater - disrupting the guest experience for a US executive who had rented the property for $30,000 per week.
“The infrastructure can’t keep up with the demands of the island. Harbour Island is a very popular place. We’re not getting clean power,” Mr Malcolm added. He said the on-island generation units purchased by Power Secure, the former BPL manager under the Christie administration, were designed for mining operations rather than being run day in, day out.
Besides being the wrong equipment, Mr Malcolm said these engines were run around the clock and “burned up over time”, resulting in no back-up generation availability when BPL’s main supply cable from the Eleuthera mainland was impacted.
Mr Bannister yesterday backed these observations, disclosing that three of the engines purchased by Power Secure had “failed” before the US company and the Government parted ways.
“We wasted several millions of dollars in purchasing them,” he told Tribune Business. “The reality is they were completely unsuitable for the needs of Harbour Island simply because they were only supposed to be back-up generators. I know they were not supposed to be full-time,.
“They put them in Harbour Island and ran them full-time, and as a result they were bound to fail. It was a total waste of money for the country. It was a colossal mistake. It was one of those mistakes we continue to suffer from because of errors made by the Power Secure group.”