By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A top Grand Bahama hotelier yesterday warned that "Freeport's business model won't work" unless its airport is rapidly restored to a standard where it can receive US and international flights.
Magnus Alnebeck, Pelican Bay's general manager, told Tribune Business that Grand Bahama International Airport's owners needed to be pressed on their plans for rebuilding the terminals and infrastructure devastated by Hurricane Dorian given the facility's critical importance to the island's tourism and industrial economy.
Acknowledging that the airport's controlling owner, Hutchison Whampoa, has form for failing to repair hurricane-ravaged Freeport assets, Mr Alnebeck suggested that both the government and prospective Grand Lucayan purchasers sound it out over whether it was prepared to sell the asset.
He argued that the Minnis administration, in particular, should have a "serious sit down" with both Hutchison and the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA) to discuss whether the duo would be willing to sell their respective 50 percent stakes.
With the US pre-clearance facility unlikely to return until Grand Bahama International Airport was restored to an acceptable condition, the Pelican Bay chief said Freeport and the wider island faced the threat of "being converted to an out island very quickly".
He argued that it "would not even become an Exuma or Eleuthera", as both those islands receive international flights, but rather "an Andros" located just 80 miles from South Florida unless international airlift came back "as quickly as possible".
"To be able to get US airlift back in, and Bahamasair back up and running, is vital - not only for tourism but for the Freeport business model with all the industrials," Mr Alnebeck told Tribune Business. "Without the airport the Freeport model doesn't really work.
"Without the airport opening up Freeport gets converted to an Out Island very quickly, but an Out Island without airlift from the US. We don't even become an Exuma or Eleuthera because they have airlift from the US. We become an Andros."
Mr Alnebeck's comments echo fears and scepticism privately expressed to Tribune Business by other Freeport businessmen and residents in recent days over the willingness of the Grand Bahama International Airport's to rebuild the facility following the likely multi-million dollar devastation caused by Hurricane Dorian.
Such concerns have likely been sparked by Hutchison Whampoa's actions at the Grand Lucayan following Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, when it pocketed the insurance proceeds received but failed to repair the resort - ultimately leaving this to the Government (Bahamian taxpayers) along with the task of finding a new owner.
Mr Alnebeck suggested that Hutchison should be "given the benefit of the doubt" over the airport until its intentions become clear. He added that a Grand Bahama Tourist Board meeting last week said the airport's owners were waiting for the insurance loss adjusters and structural engineers "to go in an assess how bad the damage is".
"I haven't seen any official statement from them," the Pelican Bay chief said of the airport's owners. "They and the government need to decide if they will do something temporary. You can do a terminal temporarily with tents and barracks, and that's a decision that needs to be taken.
"We need as quickly as possible to have the ability to get commercial airlift back for Freeport. How can you try to attract manufacturing, industrials without being able to fly directly from the US to Freeport. It's almost impossible."
Besides the daily flow of inbound and outbound tourism visitors, Grand Bahama International Airport has provided a vital transportation artery for the likes of the Grand Bahama Shipyard and Freeport Container Port to bring in hundreds of skilled expatriate workers on short and medium-term contracts.
While its runway is currently open to receive domestic and Dorian relief flights, the loss of the terminal buildings and associated infrastructure threatens to deal a significant blow to Freeport's commercial revival unless rapidly resolved.
While Western Air and Bahamasair are flying domestic routes into Freeport, Mr Alnebeck said Bahamasair was "checking people in in the city and bringing them to the airport".
"It's going to take time to get those terminals rebuilt because they did have severe damage," he added. "They must have been under at least six to seven feet of water for 24 hours. You can imagine what that does to systems, computers and luggage racks. It's a major job to rebuild."
The airport's fate is also vital to the Royal Caribbean/ITM Group joint venture's $65m Grand Lucayan purchase and harbour redevelopment, since the stopover visitors generated by incoming US airlift will be vital to supplementing the cruise guests and filling rooms overnight.
Tribune Business understands that key participants in the Grand Lucayan negotiations, including the resort's chairman, Michael Scott, have been exploring whether the possibility exists for the Government to take over Grand Bahama International Airport. Dorian's devastation may have provided just such an opportunity.
"Maybe somebody should suggest they buy the airport," Mr Alnebeck told Tribune Business of the RoyalCaribbean/ITM venture. "To me it would make sense if they're going to operate 1,300 rooms on the island and be a major investor in the tourism industry.
"You would want maybe at least a say in that airport, and maybe they would prefer to have a government to speak to rather than another private entity. I think that would be a wonderful idea."
The Pelican Bay chief admitted the thought that Hutchison would not reinvest any insurance proceeds into the airport's revival had "crossed my mind as well". He added: "Hutchison doesn't have a proven track record of spending insurance proceeds widely in Grand Bahama, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
"I suggest that the Government has a serious sit down with them and ask how much they really want for the airport. You have a good company operating Lynden Pindling International Airport (Nassau Airport Development Company) that maybe could be an operator of the airport in Grand Bahama as well."
Mr Alnebeck, meanwhile, said US pre-clearance facility workers had left Grand Bahama and were unlikely to return "until they have acceptable working conditions, which is probably very far down the line" especially given the absence of international flights.