By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Freeport-based QC yesterday urged the government to “pull the trigger” on making his city The Bahamas’ future capital rather than waste “billions and billions” on moving it to Andros.
Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney and partner, told Tribune Business that the country did not need to “reinvent the wheel” even though he backed calls by former attorney general, Alfred Sears QC, to move the Bahamian capital from Nassau.
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Mr Sears, in a paper issued this week, had called for the creation of Capital City Investment Public Corporation to raise the financing necessary to develop a new Bahamian capital in Andros via instruments such as bonds, grants and low interest-rate loans, public-private partnerships (PPPs) and equity offerings to Bahamians.
While Mr Sears envisaged this corporation ultimately evolving into a sovereign wealth fund that would “supervise and manage the construction” of a new capital city, Mr Smith yesterday questioned why such a costly plan was necessary when much of the infrastructure required already exists in Freeport.
With Freeport’s economy “poised for resurrection” if the government shows the necessary “political will”, the Callenders & Co partner agreed with Mr Sears that Nassau - and, by extension, New Providence - was now too over-crowded to support efforts to develop The Bahamas “into the Singapore of the west”.
Pointing out that Freeport’s existing land and infrastructure can support another 250,000 persons, Mr Smith urged the Government to “stop approving new subdivisions” on New Providence and instead provide the foundation for a population shift to Grand Bahama by moving several of its ministries there.
With relocation aided by real estate prices that are 70-80 percent less than those in Nassau, he added that Freeport could also be designated as “the exclusive place” in The Bahamas for a medical marijuana industry and other sectors to provide the necessary job opportunities.
“I am thrilled that Mr Sears, who I consider to be one of the brightest and most forward-thinking minds in The Bahamas, suggests moving the capital from Nassau to the Family Islands,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business. “However, I respectfully differ as to its location. I suggest that Freeport, Grand Bahama, is economically poised to be the future capital of The Bahamas.
“It can accommodate another 250,000 persons at a minimum. It was designed for 300,000. Freeport would cost billions and billions of dollars to replicate in Andros. We don’t have that kind of money, and we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I urge the Government to give Freeport a chance so that it can help to create a future for The Bahamas.
“It has all of the features identified by Mr Sears in his description already in existence, and the reality is that in time Freeport, Grand Bahama, will outstrip every other island in The Bahamas - in particular, New Providence - as a place for economic, touristic, industrial and commercial development.”
Shifting the capital city from Nassau is a topic that has been mulled frequently before given the belief that New Providence, a seven mile by 21 mile island, is already overcrowded due to a constantly expanding population and Family Islanders migrating to it in search of work.
This, in turn, has strained New Providence’s physical infrastructure and provision of social services to breaking point in some instances, especially since Nassau’s evolution as an urban centre has largely lacked long-term planning - unlike Freeport.
While Freeport would be the obvious alternative capital, one potential obstacle may be the Hawksbill Creek Agreement and the Grand Bahama Port Authority’s quasi-governmental authority over the Port area. It is possible the Government’s relationship with the GBPA would have to be re-worked if moving the capital evolves from concept to reality.
Mr Smith yesterday argued that “the resurrection of Freeport is a matter of pure political will”, especially given the Minnis administration’s commitment to reviving the city’s economy. However, its short-term revival depends heavily on bringing the $100m Carnival cruise port and $65m Grand Lucayan acquisition by ITM/Royal Caribbean, as well as the proposed medical school, through to fruition.
With the Government’s Grand Bahama “technology hub” ambitions likely to take time to materialise, Mr Smith said making Freeport the “new capital” could be kick-started by moving key ministries to the city.
He suggested that the ministry of agriculture and fisheries and ministry of youth, sports and culture were ripe for transfer, while the Bahamas Maritime Authority (BMSA) should also relocate because Freeport was the industry’s main centre of activity.
Civil service relocation, Mr Smith added, would be eased by Freeport’s supply of land and lower real estate prices, together with the tax breaks and other incentives offered - especially for private sector businesses - under the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
“Nassau is a touristic destination,” the outspoken QC told Tribune Business. “It can remain an historic heritage site but, as The Bahamas continues to grow and develop into the Singapore of the West it can be, it will need space and physical infrastructure to grow.
“That no longer exists in Nassau. An example of that is this campaign to take away land from poor Bahamians that live in shanty towns to create more subdivisions. The Government should stop approving any more residential subdivisions in Nassau. They should do everything to promote the capital’s moving to Freeport.
“Nassau’s development capacity is over-saturated. Short of beginning to go vertical almost everywhere, it can no longer go vertical. Beach and recreational access is severely limited; there are no bike and running parks throughout New Providence, people are terrified of crime and property prices are 70-80 percent less in Freeport,” Mr Smith added.
“Freeport is already the Venice of the Caribbean. People from Nassau can come and own lots on canals and lots on golf courses. I emphasise that Freeport’s resurrection and rise to economic dominance in The Bahamas is just a matter of pure political will. Water, sanitation, waste management; everything in Freeport is already available and ready to grow, and we don’t have blackouts five times’ a day.”