By YOURI KEMP
Tribune Business Reporter
The government is “aggressively pursuing” the Grand Bahama International Airport’s (GBIA) acquisition as a “high priority” for the island’s economic revival, a Cabinet minister reiterated yesterday.
Kwasi Thompson, minister of state for Grand Bahama, told reporters outside the Cabinet Office that “it remains an unacceptable position for the Government” that the airport’s current owners are unwilling to restore the island’s major aviation gateway to international standards following the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Dorian.
Grand Bahama Airport Company, a subsidiary of Freeport Harbour Company, is owned 50/50 by a joint venture involving Hutchison Port Holdings and the Grand Bahama Port Authority’s (GBPA) Port Group Ltd affiliate. The Hong Kong-based conglomerate has management control.
“Hutchison indicated that they were not intending on rebuilding the airport to the state that it was in prior to Dorian. This obviously was unacceptable for the government, and it remains an unacceptable position for the government,” Mr Thompson said.
“We entered into talks with Hutchison. The talks were slightly delayed as a result of COVID-19. We have continued those talks. We are actively in discussions with them, actively in negotiations with Hutchison with respect to the turnover of the airport. The airport is a high priority for the government. No island, particularly an island that is in the process of rebuilding, can do so without an active airport.”
Tribune Business previously reported that the government and Hutchison/GBPA were discussing a deal that would see the two joint venture partners receive $1 each for their respective 50 percent equity stakes in the airport. However, both would be allowed to retain the Dorian-related insurance settlement proceeds, leaving the government to both finance the airport’s rebuilding and find a management partner to operate it.
Mr Thompson added: “One thing I will say is that the airport presently is open. There is a temporary structure that is in place. Prior to COVID-19 there were international flights that were coming in, domestic flights were coming in.
“So the airport is active for domestic flights coming in. We expect that when the country opens up fully for international flights that the temporary facility will also accommodate those international flights. But we understand that it is not an acceptable position for Grand Bahama to be in for any long period of time. We are going to continue to aggressively push with Hutchison to arrive at an acceptable agreement with respect to the airport.”
Responding to concerns that the costs associated with the airport’s reconstruction may be too rich for the government given its present fiscal difficulties, Mr Thompson said: “Obviously it is a very challenging situation for the government at present, given the difficulties we have faced with COVID-19, but it is a position that we have to aggressively pursue.
“I think if we want to fully rebuild the island, the airport is a high priority for the government, and so we are going to continue to aggressively pursue it. One thing that we have to recognise is the airport really has been damaged a number of times by several hurricanes, and so any position with respect to the airport will require a complete reassessment of the property where it’s at now; a reassessment of how you are going to rebuild it.
“If we are going to rebuild, it must be rebuilt in a resilient way. It does not make sense for us to rebuild what was there before because we have learned that in that situation it is likely to be destroyed again if another hurricane comes. We have to look at how we are going to rebuild it and rebuild it resiliently.”
Refusing to put any timeline on when negotiations may be completed, Mr Thompson said: “I think if you put timelines in then you risk really having the best possible deal that you can for the Bahamian people.
“So we are, at the moment, satisfied that there is a temporary facility there, and there are domestic flights still coming. We expect that international flights are going to come, and so we are going to aggressively pursue the negotiations as best we can.”