By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The prime minister’s pledge that the government “will not grant” permission for a free trade zone in North Andros was yesterday hailed as “very encouraging” by the Bahamas National Trust’s (BNT) top executive.
Eric Carey, the Trust’s executive director, reiterated to Tribune Business that the proposal headed by Los Angeles-based billionaire philanthropist, Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, was a “non-starter” for his organisation and other environmentalists given that it would impact all the national parks on that island.
Despite the optimism generated by Dr Hubert Minnis’ comments during his national address yesterday, Mr Carey called for continued “vigilance” and tracking of the North Andros Green Free Trade Zone should a formal proposal eventually be submitted for the government’s approval.
Warning that the prime minister’s message may not have been strong enough, the BNT chief said his comments could “trigger” Dr Soon-Shiong into offering a revised or scaled-down version of the project rather than killing-off his ambitions.
“For the prime minister to come out and say...... that is something they will not consider, that is actually very encouraging,” Mr Carey told this newspaper. “We have to still be vigilant and track the process, so that if a detailed proposal is submitted we get word on that as well.
“If the developer goes through with a detailed submission, we’d like to hear when that happens. I’d like to see whatever they provide if they decide to stick with it. Hopefully this signal is strong enough that the developer will see the government is saying we won’t consider that large-scale development.”
Mr Carey spoke out after the prime minister, in his national address, promised that his administration will not permit a free trade zone’s development in North Andros nor the sell-off of vast tracts of land to international investors.
Tribune Business understands Dr Soon-Shiong’s ambitions have been significantly scaled-down in size compared to the 500,000 acres detailed in the initial proposal, and would require a much smaller footprint - especially since it would only be developed in stages should it receive the go-ahead from the government.
Nevertheless, Dr Minnis said yesterday: “In the draft proposal there are concepts for the development of half a million acres of land, aragonite harvesting, medical research facilities, air and seaports, and other developments.
“The proposal has not been formally analysed nor reviewed to determine its viability, nor has it been presented to the National Economic Council (meaning the Cabinet) for consideration....... My government has not approved the proposal.”
Accusing the Opposition of “misusing” revelations about the North Andros Green Free Trade Zone proposal “to sow confusion in our country”, the Prime Minister promised: “Let me be very clear for all to hear. This government will not grant a free trade zone in Andros.
“Nor will we alienate or sell-off vast tracts of Bahamas land as a previous PLP administration allowed in Mayaguana, when10,000 acres was alienated to a foreign group.” That is a not-so-subtle reference to the first Christie administration’s deal with the Boston-based I-Group, which was intended to evolve into a southern Bahamas version of Freeport but, to-date, has fallen woefully short of such lofty aspirations.
Setting out the government’s policy stance, Dr Minnis said: “We welcome Bahamian and foreign investors submitting proposals that are win-wins for the people of The Bahamas and for the investors. At this time of great economic hardship we need all the appropriate investment we can get. However, my government will not approve concepts from Bahamians or foreigners we think are not in the best interest of the Bahamian people.”
Dr Soon-Shiong, who was said by Forbes to have a net worth of $6.9bn as at March 2020, would appear to be the sort of legitimate, bona fide investor that The Bahamas needs to attract to reignite its economy and employment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A part-owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, and owner and executive chairman of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune newspapers, his initial Andros proposal - which has yet to be formally submitted to the government and its investment agencies - aims to create 750-plus full-time jobs, and 10,000 construction jobs over the build-out.
Some $200m-$250m will be invested over the first two phases of a development targeted at the Morgan’s Bluff area in North Andros. The project is focused on “value-added” manufacturing involving the creation of finished products from aragonite and other Bahamian natural resources, rather than simply exporting the raw material.
However, Mr Carey added yesterday: “The non-governmental organisation community has spoken too. It [the project] is totally out of scale, inappropriate and out of sync. There was an Andros master plan that was part of the National Development Plan, and this would be completely out of sync with that.
“Hopefully the government will apply the principles outlined in that master plan before they review any of the proposals on the table. We just have to wait and see what the next steps are.” The BNT chief said the free trade zone plan would “impact and touch all the national parks on Andros, and added: “From our perspective it’s a non-starter.”
The prime minister did not yesterday mention the project involving Cameron Symonette, the Symonette Group’s chief executive, was one of the principals behind a proposed aggregate mining and land reclamation project that would generate more than 100 jobs - and a total $125m investment - at full build-out.