By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco stakeholders yesterday voiced hope that the government is not too late to “dodge a bullet” with plans to seek a public-private partnership (PPP) for the rebuilding of Marsh Harbour’s sea port.
Ken Hutton, the island’s Chamber of Commerce president, reiterated fears voiced previously to Tribune Business that the PPP proposal may not come in time to sustain the port’s ongoing post-Dorian waiver from having to comply with global maritime security standards implemented after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
He disclosed that a US Coast Guard and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) inspection of Marsh Harbour’s port is due next month, with the facility having received little to no repairs since - as the Ministry of Transport acknowledged - it was “completely devastated” by Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
Adverse inspection findings could potentially result in the present exemption from the International Shipping and Port Security (ISPS) standard being discontinued, which would result in vessels bringing in reconstruction and daily supplies to Abaco being unable to return directly to the US.
Such a development would force these cargo vessels to instead offload their goods in Nassau or Freeport rather than Abaco, resulting in increased costs and extra time to get vital products to homeowners and businesses still rebuilding their Dorian-ravaged properties.
Senator Dion Foulkes, minister of transport and local government, revealed the PPP plans during his Budget debate contribution on Thursday - the first sign that the Minnis administration is seeking private capital to redevelop the port, together with an operator to manage it under what would likely be a lease arrangement similar to the Arawak Port Development Company (APD) deal in Nassau.
“The ministry, being cognisant that as a consequence of the devastating impact of Hurricane Dorian in 2019, the Marsh Harbour port in Abaco was completely destroyed and, too, in an effort to provide a secure and efficient port, wishes to advise that the Government is considering a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) to effect the rebuilding and management of this port,” the Ministry of Transport said.
“The Ministry of Transport and Local Government, in conjunction with the Disaster Reconstruction Authority (DRA), has formed a joint committee which is in the process of formulating plans for the issuance of a Public-Private Partnership for the re-building of the Marsh Harbour port; the details of which will be forthcoming.”
Mr Hutton said the sea port was a more critical issue than Marsh Harbour’s airport, which is part of a separate PPP arrangement which is more advanced. “I’m happy they’re dealing with the airport. It is needed,” he told Tribune Business.
“I’m more concerned about the sea port. If all is said and done, Abaco can survive without the airport. It cannot survive without the sea port. Of the two, the more critical piece of infrastructure is the sea port. Hopefully, that’s on the agenda soon.”
Mr Hutton backed the proposed PPP as “the right direction” to go, given that the Government’s financial resources are “stretched to the limit” while the private sector’s role is “to maximise the return on assets and look at the best way to use capital so they don’t waste money”.
However, he argued that the committee put together to develop the PPP needed to include port stakeholders and representatives from the wider Abaco community as “it’s not a government project” and should not be limited to representatives from the ministry and DRA.
Reiterating concerns previously voiced over the precariousness of the Marsh Harbour port’s ISPS waiver, Mr Hutton told this newspaper: “Without that, foreign vessels cannot come into Abaco and return to the US. That would certainly limit our ability to maintain our supply chain, which is critical at this point not only to the rebuilding but day-to-day supply of food.
“There is an IMO inspection and coastguard inspection next month. I have been concerned about this since this time last year. I have been screaming about this for over a year. We could have avoided this. If shipments have to come into Nassau or Grand Bahama instead, does it have to clear there or can it come in under bond? Does there have to be a transire to come here?
“It opens up a whole can of shipping worms. Hopefully we’ll be able to dodge this bullet, although we should have been looking to dodge this bullet a year ago.” Mr Hutton reiterated that loss of the ISPS waiver would result in increased shipping costs and delays, leading to a reduction in living standards and higher prices.
Mr Foulkes did not respond to Tribune Business calls and messages seeking comment before press time last night. However, Roscoe Thompson, chief councillor of the Marsh Harbour, Spring City and Dundas Town town council, said yesterday it was vital the Marsh Harbour port both be restored and maintain its current status since “it’s the heart of where everything comes in”.
“It’s vital they get it up and running,” he added. “I’m surprised it’s taken them [the Government] coming up on two years. As far as I know they don’t have a temporary building or office. Customs is still in trailers. It’s not any better.
“They always had infractions. The security cameras did not work before the hurricane, the fence had holes on it. You could get on to that port pretty easily enough, even today.” The port indeed came close to losing its ISPS status just prior to Dorian in summer 2019.
Mr Thompson revealed that the township had been talking to Mr Hutton and a non-profit about forming a partnership to obtain three acres from the site that was formerly the Mud and Pigeon Pea shanty towns, and use it for offices and warehousing space for the Marsh Harbour port so that it would have “room to grow”.
However, he backed the concept of a PPP in principle, as it would take the port “out of the Government’s hands and we will have a company running it how it should be run”.