By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Government's top aviation official yesterday said we "definitely want to break ground" on Exuma's $65m airport redevelopment early next month as part of a wider $165m Family Island upgrade.
Algernon Cargill, director of aviation, told Tribune Business that officials were now waiting on the Government to approve the preferred contractor for a project that will increase the airport's terminal from the present 2,000 square feet to some 60,000 square feet.
Exuma, together with ongoing upgrades to the Great Harbour Cay airport in the Berry Islands, represent the first steps in a wider overhaul that is designed to transform key Out Island airports into true tourism "gateways" and links/hubs to other parts of The Bahamas.
Mr Cargill confirmed that officials plan to put the construction contract for a new $15m airport at Deadman's Cay, Long Island, out to tender in January, with construction work starting in March 2021.
He also affirmed that the Government remains committed to a public-private partnership (PPP) model for financing and managing the construction/development of these airports in a bid to alleviate the strain on an already cash-strapped Public Treasury.
Revealing that the process had been broken down into individual airports, Mr Cargill said officials were also awaiting the go-ahead to release several Request for Proposal (RFP) tender documents in a bid to "find the right partner" to manage/operate The Bahamas' key aviation infrastructure assets.
With $35m in Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) financing set to kick-off Exuma's redevelopment, the aviation chief said the Government remained confident that the necessary extra capital could be secured from both domestic and international private sources after receiving several such offers already.
He added that potential airport manager/operator partners were also being encouraged to find ways for Bahamian investors to participate in the financing and earn a return, suggesting that the model would be similar to that used to fund Arawak Port Development Company (APD).
"We definitely want to break ground next month in Exuma," Mr Cargill told this newspaper. "The recommendation has been made on the contractor, and we're waiting on the Cabinet of The Bahamas to give the go ahead, confirm the contractor and advise that we can proceed. We certainly have the funding to move ahead." He did not name the likely contractor.
The IDB's $35m, while substantial enough to get construction in Exuma moving, "is a very small contribution to the total cost" of an initiative that Mr Cargill estimated will require a $165m total investment between Exuma, north Eleuthera, Long Island, Abaco and Great Harbour Cay.
Exuma and north Eleuthera will each cost $65m, he added, with the former involving airside redevelopment through work on the runway as well as a new fire crash rescue station and control tower. "The market has outgrown the current airport," Mr Cargill said, "so we're moving from a terminal with 2,000 square feet space to 60,000 square feet space for arrivals.
"It will bring a lot of strategic advantages in terms of the tourism market as it will allow jets to fly in directly to Exuma rather than have to stop in Nassau. The mid-range strategic plan is to have the Exuma airport act as a hub for the southern Bahamas, so instead of stopping in Nassau planes can stop in Exuma and Eleuthera. We're creating support for travel from those places to other islands in The Bahamas."
Mr Cargill added that the design for Exuma, by Bahamian architect firm, Alexiou & Associates, will be replicated in north Eleuthera. He added that the Government would not provide direct funding for the Family Island airport overhauls, but instead will contribute assets such as land, which it is working to acquire via compulsory acquisition in both Eleuthera and Long Island.
"We're moving quickly. We'd have liked to be a bit further ahead, but this is where we are," Mr Cargill said. "We're at the roof stage in Great Harbour Cay for a 5,000 square foot terminal, and we're in the final stages of planning in Long Island. Our plan is to go to tender in Long Island in January, and then be able to start construction in February/March.
"We're improving the gateways for The Bahamas, as the airports are the first point of entry that travellers see. We're creating businesses for Bahamians to work in at airports and communities around the airport, so we're creating entrepreneurship and creating additional industries for more Bahamians to get hired in the aviation sector. These are all projects that have huge benefits for our economy."
Mr Cargill said it was vital that potential airport operators/managers "come with good plans to generate revenues" and make these facilities financially self-sustainable, adding: "We have a proposal already done, an RFP to go out to find partners for these PPPs. As soon as that's approved, we will be able to issue several of them.
"We've already done the groundwork and are ready to release them to find the right partner to move ahead with. These are for the operator services primarily. We're not too concerned about the financing. We have the financing to move ahead from private sources, arranged mainly by local institutions.
"We have local financing arranged in the event we cannot source international funding, but I doubt that will be an issue. A part of the financing is that Bahamians are able to participate in investing in the airports. That's how we structured it. The important thing is Bahamians are able to participate in the local financing similar to what we did to APD. It's intended to encourage Bahamians to invest in airports."