* Committee chief: City can give 40-60% of GDP
* 'Road to Bahamas turnaround' lies through GB
* Rebranding eyes 'Maritime Centre of Americas'
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
COVID-19 has given Freeport a "now or never opportunity" to fulfill an economic potential that could ultimately generate 40-60 percent of Bahamian GDP, a prominent attorney argued yesterday.
Robert Adams, who heads the Revitalization and Economic Expansion of Freeport (REEF) committee, told Tribune Business that "the road to the economic turnaround of The Bahamas goes and lies" through the nation's second city - especially when it comes to diversification and attracting new industries.
He disclosed that the 20-person committee, launched quietly some six months ago by the Grand Bahama Port Authority (GBPA), is proposing that Freeport build on its existing strengths through the container port, shipyard and harbour to "rebrand as the Maritime Centre for the Americas".
Mr Adams argued that this, together with plans to establish Freeport and wider Grand Bahama as "a centre of excellence" for the so-called "Blue Economy", which involves maximising the benefits of marine resources in a sustainable way, could "perhaps define Freeport's identity for the first time".
The committee's wide-ranging suggestions, covering reforms in areas such as Immigration, tourism, the ease of doing business and land and real estate, also focus on Freeport's immediate needs for a new airport and hospital as critical infrastructure foundations that are essential to any hopes of economic recovery on Grand Bahama.
They were released publicly yesterday for the first time as part of a 21-day consultation process, as the committee bids to obtain feedback and fresh ideas from both the private sector and individual residents on how the economy should be rebuilt post-COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian.
Acknowledging that the committee and GBPA "do not have all the ideas and proposed solutions", Mr Adams pledged "don't count us out" as he conceded that many residents will be weary due to the island's challenges over the past 15 years.
He also agreed that no change will be possible unless the Government agrees to make essential law and policy reforms, chief among them the need to extend Freeport's real property tax exemption to all licensees - not just the GBPA and Hutchison Whampoa-owned entities - until at least 2036 so that businesses and investors "can have the confidence to plan and invest for the future".
Asked whether Freeport will receive the necessary level of co-operation and collaboration from the Government, given Nassau's frequent efforts to exert more control over the city and the sometimes-fraught relationship with the GBPA, Mr Adams said the committee's proposals had received a positive response when presented to government and Opposition members earlier this week.
"I think describing it as a 'now or never opportunity' is a good way of putting it," Mr Adams told this newspaper of the reform possibilities created by COVID-19. "I think it's an excellent opportunity. I think this is probably the best opportunity we have had in a very long time: A now or never opportunity.
"We've met with the representatives of central government. We had a meeting [on Monday] with all the Grand Bahama-based ministers, and [on Tuesday] we had a meeting with the PLP's representatives in Grand Bahama and Chester Cooper, their deputy leader.
"I can say that across the board both expressed support for the consultation exercise, and are willing to work with the Port Authority. We think that's a very positive sign. When we present the recommendations for the action plan, and the legislation and policy reforms to be made, we'll have constructive dialogue with government and make changes that ultimately support the work and objectives," he continued.
"We cannot count it as a given, but based on the exchange with government and Opposition representatives so far we feel reasonably confident we'll receive their support. That's critical. That's the centrepiece. We cannot make any changes without government."
Mr Adams added that the Government will be "hard pressed" to resist the need for change if the Freeport community and voters throw their weight behind the final recommendations and report provided by the committee, which has a majority of private sector representatives as well as GBPA Board members and executives.
With the GBPA's owners, the Hayward and St George families, "100 percent behind the initiative" and "fully committed to seeing it through to the end", Mr Adams told Tribune Business: "I think that Freeport, if it was able to realise its full and true potential, could contribute - and this is my off-the-cuff estimate - somewhere between 40-60 percent of national gross domestic product (GDP).
"That's ideal. I would at the moment accept 30 percent. If we're able to do 30-40 percent of GDP, we'd turnaround the national economy in a big way. We think the road to the economic turnaround for the national economy goes and lies through Freeport.
"When Freeport does well, it reduces the conurbation and the overcrowding issues that exist in Nassau. We have people from Freeport in Nassau at the moment only because of the need to work and seek employment opportunities.... The way forward for The Bahamas is through Freeport and enhancing Freeport's advantage as a special economic zone (SEZ)."
Mr Adams explained that the inspiration for the committee's launch came when the Government-appointed Economic Recovery Committee (ERC) excluded any GBPA representatives and only incorporated one person from Grand Bahama, the island's Chamber of Commerce president, Gregory Laroda.
This prompted Freeport's quasi-governmental authority to form the committee, reaching out to stakeholders and major licensees, in a bid to use the crisis created by COVID-19 "to create an action plan to promote and revitalise the economy in the long-term". Its work will now be assessed and rated by the wider public to see whether there is sufficient support, or better alternatives, to the proposals.
"We have identified, as a rebranding of Freeport, converting the city into a Maritime Centre for the Americas and centre of excellence for the Blue Economy," Mr Adams told Tribune Business, "leveraging the assets we have. They are, in my view, achievable aspirations. It gives Freeport the opportunity to play to our strengths."
The presence of Freeport Container Port and Freeport Harbour Company, together with the Grand Bahama Shipyard and the cruise lines' investment in that entity (as well as Carnival and Royal Caribbean's pending port/hotel investments), as well as Grand Bahama's proximity to the US and major shipping routes, provide a foundation upon which to build a potential maritime hub.
"We're also asking the Government to move the Bahamas Maritime Authority to Freeport to make a statement of intent that this is going to be the centre of maritime affairs for The Bahamas," Mr Adams added.
He said Freeport's experience with hurricanes over the past 15 years also made it an ideal candidate to develop and attract industries focused on mitigating the effects of climate change and natural disaster elements, creating "research and development on inter-coastal resilience, and figuring out how economies and communities cope with storm surges" as a unique twist on the Blue Economy.
Other committee members include Jeremy Cafferata at Freeport Ship Services; Sean Basden, of Taino Beach And Flamingo Resorts; Greg Ebelhar, Polymers International's chief operating officer; Ellie Hepburn, chief executive of Elnet Maritime; James Sarles of Sarles Realty; Pietro Stefanutti, Pharmachem's president; and Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney.