Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis. Photo: Terrel W Carey Sr/Tribune Staff
By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
DESPITE a poor response to the concessions offered under the government’s Economic Empowerment Zone initiative, Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis is confident the plan will work.
The Tribune exclusively reported last week that nearly four months after the Over-the-Hill zone went live, just 17 applications for concessions were submitted and of these 14 were approved.
And only a few of the more than a dozen people interviewed by this newspaper had even heard about the programme and its tax concessions.
Asked about it on Saturday fresh from high level talks he and Caribbean leaders had with United States President Donald Trump, Dr Minnis admitted more needed to be done to inform inner-city residents of the initiative’s offerings.
Dr Minnis also slammed critics, saying it was impossible to undo in one year the damage done over 50 years in the Over-the-Hill community.
“Whatever I embark upon I do my best to ensure that it works and I will continue to do my best for the Bahamian populace and not just the inner-city but the Bahamian populace at large and I will focus and concentrate especially on the poor,” Dr Minnis said.
Earlier in the interview he said: “I’m glad you asked. The inner-city is dear to me. Poverty is dear to me. I would aggressively attack poverty being a descendent of poverty, but it’s amazing and, before I answer your question, it’s important that you understand and that’s all of you.
“It’s amazing that the inner-city was neglected for 50 years and you want resolution in one. That’s impossible. Pregnancy takes nine months before the baby is delivered. It don’t happen overnight and when the baby comes they crawl before they walk and then they run. They don’t enter the Olympics, the Olympics is 20 years or 30 years away. So it can’t happen overnight.
“Seventeen? We will ramp up. We recognise that there are some in spite of all the PR that we did, there are still some that said they did not know.
“I visit the inner-city and as I speak to businessmen they themselves say that they don’t know. So we will ensure to increase it but still don’t expect a complete resolution overnight. We cannot correct 50 years of neglect in one year.”
There are many businesses in the inner-city community that stand to gain considerably from the concessions offered under the programme.
Take for example Trevor Moss’ tyre shop in Bain and Grants Town with no restroom and an unseemly roof.
The savings would help Mr Moss and others who want to renovate and equip their homes or businesses, be exempt from real property taxes or bring in cars duty-free for work.
However some who this newspaper interviewed said their homes or businesses do not need to be renovated. People like August Stevens, owner of a mom-and-pop store in Masons Addition, want to renovate their property but won’t because they don’t own the land. Others like Mr Moss said the concessions are too limited to address problems that have locked their families into a cycle of poverty for generations.
For their part, government officials noted last week that hardly three months have passed since the Economic Empowerment Zone went live in late November and officials are preparing to ramp up their education campaign to encourage more people to take advantage of the concessions.
“People are calling in, we’re receiving numerous calls,” Samita Ferguson, head of the Over-the-Hill Unit at the Office of the Prime Minister, said last week.
“We didn’t have a target of how many (applications) we wanted by a certain point. We are speeding up in our public education. We are working on a commercial. We will make sure it’s spread through social media. The environmental monitors we have hired will be very strategic because when they walk about in the zones they will be able to pass out flyers or get names or numbers of persons that would be interested in tapping into the concessions. “We have also tapped into the Urban Renewal Centres so applications can be found there.” Ms Ferguson said some who called her unit have been directed to the Small Business Development Centre, which, among other things, can provide financing to small businesses and may be a better fit for their needs.
Government officials also stress that the Over-the-Hill programme is bigger than tax concessions. The government wants to create a food market for native products in the area; eliminate outside toilet use by 2025; create an auto-mechanic cluster that eliminates roadside mechanics in residential areas; build a multi-purpose community centre that offers care for children, the elderly and opportunities for counselling and construct a sports complex, among other things.