• COVID’s ‘horrendous impact’ on post-storm recovery
• Chamber chief hopes ‘corner turned’ with vaccinations
• Doubling of building material prices just latest obstacle
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday predicted the island’s post-Dorian reconstruction will take a further “three to five years minimum” after COVID-19’s “horrendous impact” on the recovery.
Ken Hutton, hailing this week’s launch of Abaco’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out as “great news”, told Tribune Business that the pandemic had “stopped our recovery dead for a year” as lockdowns, travel restrictions and associated public health measures both delayed and complicated rebuilding efforts in the category five storm’s aftermath.
Voicing optimism that inoculations both in The Bahamas and abroad will further spur reconstruction as 2021 progresses, he expressed hope that Abaco and the country’s wider economy will “finally turn the corner” as the pandemic starts to recede.
Reiterating calls for the government to further extend the tax breaks associated with Abaco’s Special Economic Recovery Zone (SERZ) status beyond their present end-June expiry, given that supply chain backlogs are impacting the ability to import appliances and other critical goods, the chamber chief said the island is also grappling with a “crazy” 100 percent increase in building material prices.
Despite the rise in reconstruction costs, Mr Hutton said building-related activity “appears to be picking up” as increasing numbers of second homeowners return to the island following the easing of COVID-related restrictions both in The Bahamas and abroad.
“We’re in the beginning of a long recovery which was put on hold for a year. I think we’ve got another three to five years minimum,” he told this newspaper, when asked how great a setback COVID-19 has proven to the post-Dorian rebound.
“I’m just hopeful that, on a macroeconomic level, the roll-out of the vaccine helps The Bahamas and helps Abaco to get through this and put this whole COVID-19 period behind us. It’s had an horrendous impact on our recovery efforts. It basically stopped our recovery dead for a year.
“We did get some things done but that was internal stuff. In terms of rebuilding Abaco to get back on the international market, no. It’s had a tremendous impact on us. I’m really hopeful that getting the vaccines out, not only locally but internationally, is going to help us turn that corner finally.”
Abaco-based tourism workers are among those eligible to be vaccinated when inoculations take place on the island between Thursday, April 15, and Monday, April 19. Hospitality industry employees are among those now being prioritised after the Government recognised mass vaccinations were essential to jump-starting the industry upon which almost two-thirds of the Bahamian economy depends.
“The way we’re looking at it is two-fold,” Mr Hutton said of Abaco’s perspective on the vaccine roll-out. “It’s going to help us build back faster, and will open the country up for tourism. I think in the last month, with the roll-out of the vaccine in the US, we’ve definitely seen more of the second homeowners coming back to look at starting rebuilding.
“Some have started, but a lot of them have come back to see the situation. We’re only now just getting the second homeowners back, so it feels very critical that we get those SERZ concessions extended. With the supply issues in the US, even if you want to get appliances you’re not looking at receiving them before June and July.”
Mr Hutton said the Government has yet to respond to the Abaco Chamber’s request for a further extension of the remaining Dorian-related tax breaks and other relief, while adding that increased building material prices represent yet another obstacle that the island’s businesses and homeowners must overcome on the journey towards recovery.
Acknowledging that Abaco is not immune from an issue that has impacted the entire Bahamas, the Chamber president added: “It’s crazy. They’ve easily gone up by 100 percent since January. Those prices have doubled, tripled since January.”
Mr Hutton said the cost hikes were being driven by a combination of factors, including supply chain backlogs and shortages stemming from when lumber mills were closed down due to COVID-19 together with US-based demand as many persons resorted to working on their homes during lockdown.
“That’s sucking all the material out of the market and driving prices up,” he added. “It’s a global marketplace and the effects are being felt everywhere. But I can tell you that construction continues here, and it seems to be picking up.
“I think that Abaco has proven to be an incredibly resilient community. It really has. There’s no complaining. It’s just get to it. Complaints don’t fix anything. Everybody has knuckled down and is getting it done.”