By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Abaco Chamber of Commerce's president yesterday hailed "an amazing opportunity to rebuild the entire island" following the "overwhelming" response to its Project Resurrect initiative.
Speaking after the project's Friday's unveiling, Ken Hutton said the Abaco Chamber had obtained the joint support of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Marsh Harbour/Spring City district council for an effort that is focused on rebuilding the business community in Marsh Harbour and the wider island.
Disclosing that "incredible feedback" had already been received, Mr Hutton said Project Resurrect is seeking a combination of charitable donations and private sector funding to help Abaco businesses restart following the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Dorian.
The Abaco Chamber chief, who pledged to rebuild "a New Abaco" in a letter detailing the initiative's goals, said the organisation and its supporters aimed to "recreate a world-class destination" via a strategic approach that will first focus on rebuilding the physical and services infrastructure needed for every-day survival.
Acknowledging that restoration costs would likely run into the "hundreds of millions, if not billions", Mr Hutton said the island's recovery depended on the government and private sector working together as neither could achieve this ambition on their own.
While many observers have suggested it will take several years for Abaco to recover from Dorian's wrath, he argued - describing himself as "an optimist" - that this could be reduced to one year or even "a number of months" once the private sector was "motivated" and had "direction".
Mr Hutton said a number of Abaco businesses were "never coming back" after being wiped out by Dorian, while providing others with access to capital - especially small and medium-sized businesses - was key to a swift commercial revival.
He conceded that attracting a workforce back to Abaco, following the island's post-Dorian depopulation, was also critical and required the setting out of "a vision" residents could buy into and encourage them to return and invest.
Unveiling Project Resurrect, Mr Hutton and the Abaco Chamber wrote in a September 13 letter: "The storm utterly destroyed the main commercial centre of Marsh Harbour, leaving the city, island and surrounding cays without power, water, buildings, homes, banks, stores, food, fuel and many other basic amenities.
"The town's ability to function and support business is a critical step in the recovery process. As the hub of economic activity in Abaco, Marsh Harbour's destruction has crippled all the surrounding settlements and cays, and it is to this end that we as a community seek to support the restart of commercial activity through 'Project Resurrect'."
Emnphasising that The Bahamas lacked the financial means and resources to rebuild quickly, they added: "The sheer scale of Dorian's impact could not have been predicted. As a result, the Government of The Bahamas has been overwhelmed. The country does not possess the resources or the capacity to rebuild Abaco as quickly as necessary...
"So, in partnership with the Marsh Harbour local government council and The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce has launched this private sector initiative to create and fund a long-term strategic plan to rebuild a New Abaco."
Project Resurrect's main goal was described as reviving Abaco's business community through a combination of charitable funds, private sector contributions and speedy commercial approvals.
"This seeks to provide a means for helping a new Abaco by tapping into capital, both intellectual and financial, to study and recommend to the Government of The Bahamas the best, most modern restoration of Abaco and, where appropriate, fund that restoration," Mr Hutton and the Abaco Chamber added.
"Additionally, the initiative will seek to put in place the necessary infrastructure from the beginning that will allow Abaco to flourish into the future. This includes everything from civil planning to construction, temporary housing for workers to providing start-up capital and training, to qualifying Bahamian small business enterprises."
Promising that Project Resurrect will impose no extra costs on Bahamian taxpayers, and would "work in concert" with the Government's own efforts, Mr Hutton last night told Tribune Business that the response received to the letter in just three days had been "overwhelming".
"This is really an Expression of Interest going out to people to say: 'If we're doing this, is there interest in supporting this?' We're getting that," he added. "There are definitely going to be a lot of meetings held in the next 48, 72 and 96 hours. Once that happens we will get the word out on bank accounts for where the funding will go."
Mr Hutton said the Abaco Chamber had yet to meet with the Government on Project Resurrect due to the speed with which it had been announced, but promised to do so. Near-term efforts are also being focused on putting in place proper governance and legal arrangements, including the creation of bank accounts and a foundation.
The initiative "will be managed to international standards of accounting and transparency" to reassure donors on how their money is used, with all funds accounted for, and overseen by a Board of Directors comprised of Abaco and international business persons. A Board of Trustees will also be created.
"Project Resurrect is really to give some modicum of security to people that this is a private sector-driven initiative," Mr Hutton explained. "We will be, and have to, work with the Government to do this, and have to rebuild Abaco correctly and do it right.
"We're not going to put the same stuff in place that was there three weeks' back because it did not work.... We've got hundreds of businesses that were completely wiped out and do not - and cannot - have access to capital to get back into business. Some had taken out financing through mortgages on their homes which were also destroyed.
"There is no access to capital. Part of this initiative is to put together funding to help small Bahamian businesses to get back into business or better through grants, loans and equity stakes. We have been in contact with the Small Business Development Centre (SBDC) to get that conversation started," he continued.
"That's one of the things that's critical to do. Abaco will not recover unless the business community recovers. We are going to be looking at a number of businesses we know of that are never coming back. I know of several, but Abaco is going to suffer a loss of significant players in the economy."
Mr Hutton acknowledged that the likely post-Dorian disappearance of several businesses will also "leave the door open" for new entrepreneurs, but added: "One of the other challenges is going to be attracting employees back to Abaco. That's going to be an issue.
"We need to make sure our ducks are in a row so people can see the vision, see the future, and are willing to invest time and energy in returning to Abaco. That's one of the primary focuses of the Chamber."
Asked how long Abaco's rebuilding will likely take, Mr Hutton suggested that persons believing it may take several years could be unduly pessimistic. "People say that," he told Tribune Business, "but then when you're on the ground and see the difference a week makes since the storm went through, and some of the changes and the clean-up efforts.......
"I'm an optimist. It's going to take time, but I don't believe it will take years. I think you're talking a number of months, but I don't think years. Maybe a year before we're up and running, or maybe even less than that.
"Once the private sector is motivated to bring the assets they have, then it will move forward fast. Business knows how to maximise productivity of assets. That's what we do. Once decisions and made, and directions given, then stuff happens and happens very quickly."
Speaking from Miami, where he was purchasing supplies ahead of returning to Abaco today to begin reconstruction of his own businesses, Mr Hutton said: "We're very willing to work with the Government to make Abaco bigger and better than ever before.
"I think you're talking some numbers that have not been heard before. You're talking hundreds of millions if not billions. But, at the end of it, we've got a real opportunity - an amazing opportunity - to rebuild an entire island.
"Two weeks ago we were the second biggest economy in the country. Today, not so much, but if we do it correctly and do it together we can be right back in the driver's seat again and give Nassau a run for its money. We're going to try hard."