By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Abaco’s Chamber of Commerce president yesterday said the private sector was “ready, willing and able” to secure the island’s main port and ensure direct shipping from the US continues.
Ken Hutton told Tribune Business he was increasingly concerned that waivers provided by the US Coast Guard and International Maritime Organisation (IMO) will not be extended indefinitely as he praised the government for extending Abaco’s Dorian-related tax breaks for another six months to year-end 2021.
Should the exemption from the International Shipping and Port Security (ISPS) standard be discontinued, he explained that ships bringing building materials and other vital reconstruction supplies to Abaco would be unable to directly return to the US.
Such a development, he added, 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.
“We are incredibly concerned with the port,” Mr Hutton told this newspaper. “If there are things being done we are not aware of them. This is concerning because the major stakeholders in the economy are the major users of that port. If something is being done, it behooves the Government to invite the private sector into those plans. If nothing is being done, it’s even more concerning.”
Mr Hutton said that while the Marsh Harbour port had been cleaned up since Dorian, it still remained an “unsecured” facility when measured against ISPS standards. “We need to have security,” he added. “The private sector here is ready, willing and able to work with the Government to resolve the issue. We have groups ready, willing and able to fund it at zero cost to the Government.
“The waiver allows vessels that call here to return to the US directly. Loss of that waiver means those ships no longer can return directly to the US. That means everything coming to Nassau, unless those ships are not prepared to go back to the US, all those goods bound for Abaco have to stop at an intermediate port in Nassau or Grand Bahama and be transshipped to Abaco. That affects the timing and cost of goods coming into Abaco, and retards the process.”
Still, Mr Hutton hailed the Government’s extension of the Special Economic Recovery Zones (SERZs) for Abaco and Grand Bahama until year-end 2021 as providing “stability and predictability” for the ongoing Dorian restoration and its costs.
Dr Hubert Minnis, addressing the House of Assembly in unveiling the 2021-2022 Budget, said: “We appreciate that the reconstruction efforts in Abaco and Grand Bahama are continuing apace, and that progress has been limited by labour shortages and even supplies shortage as typical supply chain operations have been disrupted because of the pandemic.
“To continue to support the reconstruction efforts in Abaco and Grand Bahamas, we are extending the current relief order, known as the SERZ order, to the end of December 2021. This order provides tax relief for the full suite of construction-related supplies and activities and it will go a long way in supporting the full restoration of the impacted communities.”
Dr Minnis continued: “I am also pleased to advise that for the communities of Abaco and Grand Bahama we are for a period of two years eliminating the VAT on conveyances for properties under $250,000 for Bahamians to encourage persons to invest in buying properties and homes in those islands. Foreign buyers under the same threshold will get a discounted VAT rate.
“Again, under the Accelerate Bahamas Plan, we want to incentivise persons to move with urgency with the investment plans. Not only will this spur commercial activity, it will make these transactions more affordable for ordinary Bahamians.”
Dr Minnis also hinted that the Government’s serviced lots initiative may apply a further 50 percent discount for purchasers when it reaches Abaco and Grand Bahama, which will be on top of the existing discount where real estate worth $150,000 is being sold for $40,000 to $50,000.
Mr Hutton, describing himself as “very happy and relieved” at the extension to end-December, said: “It really provides a level of certainty and predictability and stability that we need. Because of the long lead times with a lot of building materials and purchases, it gives people confidence to make those purchases and wait through July and August for those things to arrive knowing there will not be additional charges when they get here. It allows them to really stabilise their relief budgets.
“In my opinion it was critical to our ability to rebuild. Is it going to fast track the pace here? I think it will assist the pace; it won’t fast track it, but it certainly won’t derail it. The pandemic is still a wild card but the fact it’s been extended gives us the level of stability and certainty we’ve not had up until recently.”
Mr Hutton said there was “a big need” for additional rental housing on the island to help facilitate recovery efforts.